As winter sets in and people look forward to celebrating Christmas, thousands of elderly people in Britain face the prospect of a grim winter. According to predictions by the charity Age Concern, eight elderly people will die every hour this winter from cold related diseases.
Last winter alone 28,700 elderly people in England and Wales died of preventable, cold-related illnesses and 1.5 million elderly people still cannot afford to heat their homes properly. The plight of the elderly in Britain is an ongoing issue, with cold-related deaths just the tip of the iceberg. Loneliness, depression, abuses in care homes, poverty, and inadequate pensions are just some of the things awaiting Britons when they grow old. It?s not surprising that in a survey commissioned by the Salvation Army in January 2004 entitled ‘The Responsibility Gap – Individualism, Community and Responsibility in Britain Today’, 34% of the respondents agreed with the statement “I’m worried there won’t be anyone to look after me when I’m old.”
The question that needs asking is where are these elderly peoples families and why are they not taking care of them? The answer can be found in the same survey where 21% agreed with the statement “I don’t want to have to care for my relatives when they get old.” Rampant individualism is a growing trend in Britain and its effects are not confined just to the elderly. In August this year Elaine Walker abandoned her daughter of 15 and moved to Turkey, leaving her daughter to fend for herself. Yet whilst there is outcry over incidents such as these where a child is left to fend for themselves, there is no such outcry when someone leaves their elderly relatives to fend for themselves through a cold and bitter winter.
In an attempt to ease the problem, the Chancellor Gordon Brown announced in last weeks pre-budget report that pensioner households will all receive ?200 towards their winter fuel bills. Age Concern has also called for an increase in the basic state pension from the current ?82.05 a week to at least ?109.00 to ease the poverty so many pensioners find themselves in. Viewing the problems facing the elderly from a purely economic viewpoint is the main reason these solutions have failed. The fact that winter fuel payments were first introduced in 1997 yet the cold winter deaths remain extraordinarily high is evidence of this. Wealthy pensioners with no financial problems still face depression and loneliness living in houses or care homes far from their families.
The problems facing the elderly in Britain can be attributed to one cause, and that is the lack of care and responsibility they are given by their family members. This ?responsibility gap? between family members is widening due to individualism, where the traditional family unit has all but disappeared in many places. According to the 2001 Census, there were 21,660,475 households in England and Wales, and 30% of these (6.5 million) were one-person house-holds, up from 26.3% in 1991. This makes the single-person household the most prevalent in Britain, whilst couples without children are the second most prevalent type. Therefore the elderly parents are more likely to live alone in their own homes whilst their children live separately in their own homes. As society has moved towards this more solitary mode of living, the elderly have clearly not been among the beneficiaries.
In contrast Islam’s strong family values and protection of the traditional family unit are well known and praised, and even envied by many non-Muslims. In an interview with The Scotsman newspaper on 16th October 2004, Cardinal O?Brien the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland recalling a trip to Vienna described the fears of a guide who showed him around the Austrian capital. She said: “You know, we are losing our Christian Catholic community. We are not having babies, but the immigrants, they love babies, love families, love family life, have many, many children, and soon they will be taking over”, Cardinal O’Brien said, adding: “Basically, that reflects the views of some of our own Church leaders at this time.”
Islam unlike secularism does not believe in individualism, rather Islam believes in responsibility towards the family and wider society. In the Holy Qur?an, the rights of parents are frequently mentioned. Allah (swt) says:
“And your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him. And that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them ‘Uff?'(a word of disrespect), nor shout at them, but address them in terms of honour. And lower unto them the wing of submission and humility through mercy, and say: “My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was young.”” [TMQ 17:23]
Also Islam has a unique outlook regarding the financial responsibility towards the elderly. Unlike in Britain it does not tax people National Insurance in order to fund an inadequate pension for when they retire. Rather the prime responsibility for care of the elderly falls on their offspring and other relatives and not the Islamic government. Only in circumstances where all the elderly persons relatives have been sought out and cannot support them will the government intervene. As the disposal income of the relatives is higher due to not paying National Insurance contributions, government intervening should be minimal.
This is exemplified in the hadith narrated by Jabir (ra) where the Prophet Muhammad (saw) said: “If any one of you is poor let him start with himself (i.e. provision) and if any one of you has surplus (wealth) let him spend it on his family, and if any of you has further surplus let him spend it on his relatives.”
At a time when Western government are placing unprecedented pressure on the Muslim Ummah worldwide to adopt their values it is important for Muslims to look behind the fa’ade and appreciate the detrimental affect of these values on society. The impact of these values is already apparent in some sections of the Muslim community with parent being placed in old peoples homes by their families. Beware the affect of the secular western value of individualism.