I was shocked to read a report which said that many old Japanese women from affluent backgrounds were indulging in shoplifting insignificant things such as rice, juice, seeds, strawberries and inexpensive clothing. Being well-off, they do not need them but they deliberately commit petty crimes because they want to be jailed!
Most of them are widows or loners who have spent their life in solitude. With children having settled permanently away from home, they have nobody to take care of them, especially during illness. In fact, they managed their affairs all by themselves till their failing health gave them the tag of a ‘senior citizen’.
To me, the report was simply unbelievable. Why should financially secure women resort to steal trivial stuff in a highly developed nation like Japan with its economy flourishing?
It turned out that their only problem was that of loneliness.
Spending time 24x7 in the solitude of their home, the eerie silence of their abode was almost deafening and killing. With nobody around to share their joys and sorrows, these women resorted to stealing and shoplifting to seek an entry in prison. There they would find people to talk to, which they had been missing at home.
To some, easy availability of meals and some form of prison work gave them satisfaction. They were happy to have found prisoners of their children’s age who took care of them better than their offsprings.
In the process, they would successfully overcome the sole problem of loneliness.
It is a different matter that the prison staff has to outsource specialised female workers to help older inmates with bathing and the toilet. Some staffers’ duties have, as a result, started resembling a nursing-home attendant. As a result, over the last three years, more than a third of female officers have quit their jobs.
Empty nest syndrome
A direct impact on the government, the report says, is on the costs associated with elders’ care in these facilities. These expenses have jumped by 80 per cent from a decade before.
This ‘empty nest syndrome’, however, is a universal phenomenon and Indians are not lagging behind. It is a direct outcome of the breaking up of the good old joint family system and the mushrooming of nuclear families. Gone are the days when members of big families used to talk, laugh and cry together.
Today, the kids have flown away, leaving the parent or parents all alone struggling to live all by themselves in their prime. Such is the bane of modern life. It has driven the loved ones away.
In India, neither the government nor the private sector has established an effective rehabilitation programme for senior citizens. A 2011 Census study states that Indians aged over 60 are expected to hit 143 million by the year 2021. In 2011 alone, the elderly accounted for 8.6 per cent of India’s population, the highest percentage ever.
Back home, services related to food, medical care, household work, security, finance, transportation, servants and repairs are highly unorganised. For someone like my neighbour Madhura Sinha, aged 85, it is quite depressing to manage them all single-handedly. Yes, digitalisation has come up with solutions at the tap of an app on mobiles, but it is not easy for oldies to learn new tricks as fast as the youngsters.
Unable to share her thoughts or the burden of day-to-day management, the lonely Madhura has no option but to rely on television, books and the telephone to kill time. She lost her husband when she was just 23. The support of a government job helped her single-handedly bring up a son and a daughter. With great difficulty, she educated them. Tragically, however, her daughter died young.
Endowed with an amiable nature, the grand old lady, as she is fondly addressed by the kids in the neighbourhood, makes desperate efforts to keep herself busy. Her only child, the son, had moved abroad with his own family. It has been three decades since she was left all by herself.
Quite often, she is alone without any human contact day after day, week after week and if not year after year, month after month. Her prolonged life, she says, has thus become irrelevant and is a bane and not a blessing.
When she remembers her busy work life and past, depression seeps in. But she is not alone. Senior citizens like her are now in every home. They suffer from extreme loneliness and lack humans to share their thoughts with. However, unlike the Japanese women, they cannot even opt for a life behind bars.
But adversities, they say, are a great teacher and counsellor. So Madhura has taken her loneliness and the accompanying silence in her stride.
It is tragic that in a hyper-connected digital age, while the world is shrinking, we are slowly drifting apart. What could be a greater paradox?
Lalit Raizada is a journalist based in India.