A proposal to punish families who neglect their parents, possibly with jail time, has been approved in a state of India.

The state of Bihar has approved a proposal to punish children who abandon or neglect their elderly parents, with the highest possible penalty a period behind bars.

The leader of Bihar, CM Nitish Kumar, approved the proposal, which will have the effect of making it compulsory for children to look after their parents appropriately as they age.

Some states in India already have penalties in place that can be imposed on sons and daughters who fail to care for their ageing parents.

Traditional society in India is shifting

Indian society traditionally placed high importance on protecting and caring for ageing parents and society’s elderly.

But today there are weaker family ties in India, and the population is more mobile, meaning abandonment, poverty and neglect among older people is a serious problem.

In a 2018 survey by HelpAge India, 60 per cent of the older people surveyed believed elder abuse is “prevalent” in Indian society.

Nearly one quarter said they have been a victim of elder abuse themselves, with neglect accounting for one-third of those cases. The most commonly experienced forms of abuse were disrespect (56 per cent) and verbal abuse (49 per cent).

Only 18 per cent of the older people surveyed made an attempt to report the abuse, and only 5 per cent were aware there is an elder abuse helpline they can call to report cases.

Is punishment a good way to encourage families to care for their elderly?

Harsh measures to protect the elderly might, initially at least, seem appealing to protect those who have done so much for society, and who deserve our respect and care.

Australia has its own issues caring for its senior citizens. We see a steady stream of cases of neglect and abuse in the media, and reports of substandard care in aged care facilities.

Loneliness is also a serious problem among older Australians.

A study last year by the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University found that 46 per cent of older Australian sometimes or always lack companionships.

Like India, Australia has an ageing population, and these problems are only likely to worsen if they are not addressed.

But are harsh punishments a good way to change people’s behaviour, and to get them to take more care of the older members of society?

A two-pronged approach to preventing elder abuse in Australia

Though no data on elder abuse is collected in Australia, international indications suggest between 2 per cent and 14 percent of older Australians experience elder abuse every year.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the prevalence of neglect could be even higher.

The AIFS believes that strategies to prevent elder abuse are underdeveloped in Australia.

The two main preventative themes in Australia are, firstly, changing attitudes towards ageing and older members of society, and secondly, reducing the risk factors for elder abuse, including reducing social isolation, increasing autonomy, and helping enable older people to retain control of their financial affairs.

It’s a softer approach than jail time. Let’s hope it works.

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