Islam addresses this problem from values, social norms, the role of the family and, ultimately, the role of the state.
In October 2013, in a speech at the National Children and Adults Services (NCAS) conference Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s Secretary of State for Health, addressed the issue of problems affecting Britain’s elderly.
Making his comments against a background of an unaffordable social care bill and horrific stories about mistreatment of vulnerable people in care homes in Britain he said that:
- Approximately 800,000 people in England were “a forgotten million” and “chronically lonely” – a source of “national shame”.
- Some five million people say television is their main form of company
- There are 112,000 cases of alleged abuse in care home referred by councils in 2012-13 – and that many of the remainder of the 400,000 people were just “parked there”.
In addition to this, according to the organization Age UK:
- 1.7 million (14%) UK pensioners live in poverty
- Approximately 6 million older UK people (60+) UK live in fuel poverty
- Over 1 million older people are estimated to be malnourished
- One third of >65s admitted to hospital/care homes are at risk of malnutrition
The Causes of the Problems
The reasons that Britain’s elderly suffer so much are complex. Whilst there are many cases where people in the UK care for their families, there are factors related to society’s values, social norms, as well as economics.
From a values perspective, the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s made some people believe their own personal fulfillment came above all else, with expressions of personal freedom becoming more manifest in Western societies.
In terms of social norms, individualism has steadily increased, nuclear families are less common and families have become increasingly disconnected.
In terms of economics, increased social mobility to serve the modern labour market has meant people travelling away from towns where their parents live.
Mr. Hunt drew attention to the issue by suggesting Britain should follow the example of Asia, by taking in elderly relatives once they can no longer live alone. “In those countries, when living alone is no longer possible, residential care is a last rather than a first option. And the social contract is stronger because as children see how their own grandparents are looked after, they develop higher expectations of how they too will be treated when they get old.”
There is some truth in what he says about Asia. But the state Capitalism of China and market Capitalism of India have not come without a price.
Myths versus realities
Professor Anthea Tinker, professor of social gerontology at King’s College in London, speaking on BBC Radio 4 was critical of Mr. Hunt’s comments. She cited that one of the largest nursing homes in the world is about to open in China, for 5,000 people.
In India, whilst values are still family focused in many sections of society, there are some significant social changes. In July 2013, the BBC reported that India’s elderly are increasingly moving to retirement ‘villages’.
Similarly an India-based NGO called The Harmony for Silvers Foundation published a report saying: The advent of modernization, industrialization, urbanization, occupational differentiation, education, and growth of individual philosophy have eroded the traditional values that vested authority with elderly. These have led to defiance and decline of respect for elders among members of younger generation.
Some of these points were echoed in a Times of India report in August 2013, which mentions some added cultural problems, citing a UN report. Dr V Mohini Giri, former chairperson of the National Commission of Women and chairperson of the NGO Guild for Service, wrote “India’s elderly population is doubling faster than China. By 2021, we will have 7.26 crore elderly women in India. They are often left with no support from the family. As widows, they are further marginalised in society“.
Islam, the elderly and the family
Islam addresses this problem from a unique perspective – from a values perspective, social norms, and the role of the family in society – and ultimately there is a role of the state.
Islam’s texts, the Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Mohammad (salallahu alaihi wasallam), give multiple injunctions on how to deal with the elderly – and especially with ones’ parents.
Allah (swt) says:
And We have enjoined upon man [care] for his parents. His mother carried him, [increasing her] in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning is in two years. Be grateful to Me and to your parents; to Me is the [final] destination. But if they endeavor to make you associate with Me that of which you have no knowledge, do not obey them but accompany them in [this] world with appropriate kindness and follow the way of those who turn back to Me [in repentance]. Then to Me will be your return, and I will inform you about what you used to do. [Quran 31:14-15]
Allah instructs people (not simply believers) that they owe a debt of gratitude to Him, first and foremost, and to their parents thereafter – for their efforts and sacrifices raising their children.
He (swt) stresses this so much that even if parents incite a person to associate partners with Allah – a sin above all sins in Islam – they are still deserving of the good companionship of their children, who are told not to follow their incitement.
Moreover, Allah’s Messenger (salallahu alaihi wasallam) addressed how people should view their elders.
“He is not one of us who is not merciful to our youngsters and does not respect and honour our elders“ [Al Tirmidhi] and “He, who is not merciful to our youngsters and does not fulfil the rights of our elderly, is not one of us“ [Abu Dawud].
He (salallahu alaihi wasallam) said, “Any young person who is kind to an elderly because of his age, Allah will send him someone who will be kind to him when he becomes old” [Al Tirmidhi].
Regarding neighbours, he (salallahu alaihi wasallam) said ‘A man is not a believer who fills his stomach while his neighbour is hungry’ [Al-Adab al-Mufrad Al-Bukhari].
These and many other famous evidences build a values base in society that prioritises pleasing Allah over all else. They breed a sense of respect for the old and young alike, a sense of partnership in society. They ensure responsibility within the family and amongst neighbours.
It is the Islamic Shari’ah that builds these values in society. But society doesn’t rely on a voluntary code of good conduct to implement these values. The Islamic Shari’ah also has rules that implement and protects these values.
For example, the Shari’ah dictates that relatives who are entitled to inheritance from a person have a duty of responsibility to financially maintain such a person if they are unable to provide basic needs of food, shelter and clothing for themselves.
This is because Allah (SWT) says in the Quran:
“Upon the father is the mothers’ provision and their clothing according to what is acceptable. No person is charged with more than his capacity. No mother should be harmed through her child, and no father through his child. And upon the [father’s] heir is [a duty] like that [of the father]” [Quran 2:233]
This makes it clear that the one who could potentially be an heir has a responsibility. And the state would ensure this was not neglected.
Moreover, if someone has no such relatives to maintain them – or if their relatives were unable to afford this, then provisions would be made from the state Treasury – Bait al Maal – since Prophet Mohammad (salallahu alaihi wasallam) said: ‘Whoever leaves after a wealth, it belongs to his inheritors, and if he left weak (Kall), they will be of our responsibility” [Muslim].