THEY START LOVING you even before you’re born. They bring you into this world. They teach you how to talk, walk and feed yourself, the necessary skills you need to live. They shield you from every kind of evil by putting themselves in danger. They help you grow into the intelligent adult that you are. And once you’re an intelligent adult, you fly away from the nest, leaving two broken, aged creatures to crawl towards their own death.
In a 12-city study in India, it was found that four in every ten older people are said to have suffered from verbal abuse, three suffered from neglect and a third of them from disrespect. “One in five recount enduring such abuse almost daily, a third around once a week, and a fifth every month” (Mander)
Who are these abusers? “Six in 10 report the daughter-in-law and an almost equal number the son as the major sources of abuse against them. Just 7% daughters are abusive to their parents, and no grandchildren.” (Ibid.)
But abuse is not limited to the Third World, and not limited to verbal or emotional abuse. Statistics say that every year about 4 million older Americans fall victims to abuse, and that’s not counting cases that aren’t reported. Although some of these occur in institutional settings, most occur at home. (APA)
The abuse includes verbal, emotional or psychological abuse, forced isolation, financial exploitation, neglect, physical abuse such as slapping or shoving, sexual abuse or even, in extreme circumstances, euthanasia.
This big percentage of people of the world who abuse their parents or elder relatives, where do they come from? They aren’t just some savage tribe living in the Amazon rain-forests or the peaks of the Himalayas. They aren’t just illiterate villagers in some under-developed country. And what’s more incredible – they aren’t just non-Muslims. They are people of perhaps every country, every class, every gender, every age, and every religion. And what’s scarier – they could be you or me.
It can be a very charming man who wins the heart of everyone around him and is generally known to be so kind, gentle and considerate. It can be a beautiful woman who is so caring and empathetic that all her friends come to her when they are in trouble. It can be a seemingly pious Muslim whom everyone praises for his religiosity. It can be a seeker of knowledge who learns tafsir of the Quran and stands in qiyam by night, but who somehow seems to have skipped the ayah:
And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as], “uff,” and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word. [Surat Al-Isra’, 17:23]
There are many levels of abuse, and it can take different forms. Some children just ignore their sick elderly parents’ needs and leave them alone to take whatever clumsy care they can of themselves. Others go to the extent of shouting at them for their clumsiness, insulting them, being ashamed of them. Others still do the crime of attacking them physically. I have seen it all.
But no matter what kind the abuse is, or its level of intensity, if we are guilty of abuse, we’re contributing to the collective problem. It all branches out from the same root disease, and we are worsening that disease even by being infected with it in the smallest degree. It’s a collective social evil.
Why do sane, responsible people, people like you and me, show respect and care to everyone else around them but are the exact opposite when it comes to their parents? How in the world do you account for this dual personality?
First off, let us be scientists and not judges. Let’s look at the situation objectively and not emotionally.
There could be several reasons why parents are abused by their children:
- Care-giving stress. When your parents grow old, it often becomes very difficult to take care of them. Their attitudes change; they become more and more like small children, asking unnecessary questions, doing things they shouldn’t do and vice versa, soiling their beds, refusing to eat, and giving all kinds of trouble. On top of that, old age often comes with various illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure, eye problems, and psychological problems such as amnesia and Alzheimer’s disease. Apart from the monetary expenditure for treating these often incurable diseases, it’s difficult to take care of patients who suffer from them, especially if you don’t know anything about nursing.According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Caregiver stress is a significant risk factor for abuse and neglect. When the demands of daily care for an older person are thrust onto caregivers who have not been given training or information about how to balance the needs of the older person with their own needs, they frequently experience intense frustration and anger that can lead to a range of abusive behaviors.”
- Personal problems of the caregiver. When a person himself is ill, either mentally or physically, it’s obviously difficult for him to take care of another person. When you’ve got depression, you snap at people all the time without meaning to. It becomes difficult to feed yourself, let alone others. In such a circumstance, you may appear to be intentionally rude and disrespectful to your parents, and people may well judge you and blame you.
- A history of violence in the family. A child often models the behavior of his or her parents. If a parent is alcoholic or abusive, there is every chance that the child will turn out the same too. Also, if you were abused by your parents as a child, you may want to take revenge when you’re old enough.“If there has been a history of violence in the family, an adult child may take the opportunity to ‘turn the tables’ on the abusing parent by withholding nourishment or overmedicating the parent.” (APA)
- Lifestyle adjustment. If your mother or father comes to live with you and your spouse, it means a significant change in your lifestyle. You can’t go out unless you get someone to “babysit” your parent. Your wife has to cook some special foods suited for a diabetic or heart patient. You need to skip office every so often to take them for medical checkups. And so on. It’s not easy.
- Lack of motivation. Let’s admit it. Of the reasons stated above, almost every one of them is also present if the person we are caring for is our child rather than our father or mother. Children also annoy us and increase our stress levels in various ways, are more prone to diseases than adults, and the caregiver could have a history of violent interactions in the family that might affect her or his relationship with the child.But do all these things prevent us from taking care of our children? Do these make us abandon our children, neglect them, abuse them? This happens sometimes, but not as often as it does with our elderly parents. Why?Here’s my hypothesis:From a worldly perspective, we have nothing to gain from our elderly parents and everything to gain from our children.Our children are our hopes. We give birth to them, we nurture their tiny bodies to grow into full-fledged adult human beings. In the process, we become attached to them like to no one else. We believe in them, we give them the best education, and we hope they will take care of us when it’s their turn. Our children are our investment for the future, our retirement fund.
And what is a parent? A person growing older every year. A person who has become a financial burden on us. We spend on their living expenses, pay their house rent, their medical bills, and all for what? They are going to die soon anyway, aren’t they? Why spend so much on them? What’s the point of investing on a dying person? They will leave their estate to us anyway, even if we didn’t take care of them, won’t they?
When we forget the spiritual aspects of being good to parents, we may not have any motivation left for fulfilling our obligations.
The core problem here, then, is materialistic thinking.
An Attitude of Gratitude
How do we combat materialism? By injecting the lifesaving medicine of the Quran into our lives. The Quran teaches us what’s important and why. It brings things into perspective, reminding us that this world isn’t the end, that the ultimate goals we must strive for are way beyond this short life on earth.
It also teaches us specifically about parents, what they mean to us and what we should do for them.
And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as], “uff,” and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word. And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say, “My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small.” Your Lord is most knowing of what is within yourselves. If you should be righteous [in intention] – then indeed He is ever, to the often returning [to Him], Forgiving. [Surat Al-Isra’, 17:23-25]
Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan explains the beauty of the metaphor of “lowering one’s wings” that comes in the above ayat, and how it relates to the rest of the passage:
Allah is saying, ‘When your parents say something to you, or you’re in their presence, I know that you have got wings now, but keep them lowered. There’s no need to spread it so much, to raise them.’
There’s no need to remind your parents, ‘I’m no longer a kid, okay? Now I’m adult. You can’t talk to me like that. Those days are gone.’ Talking like that actually means, ‘Look, I’ve got wings now, okay? I can raise them if I want to.’
Allah is saying, ‘I know very well that you can raise your wings. Just keep them down when talking to your parents. Keep them down as if they are weak.’ And lower it in such a way as if you don’t have any wings at all.
Remember the cycle of life. You have (or will have) your own children. Think of your relationship with your parents in terms of that with your child. You were once in the position of your child, helpless and in need, and your parents were in your position. And some time in the future, maybe you will end up being in your parents’ shoes, and your child in yours.
The Prophet once said, “Let him be humbled into dust; let him be humbled into dust.”
He was asked who he was talking about. He said, “He who sees either of his parents during their old age or he sees both of them, but he does not enter Paradise.” (Muslim)
The Prophet (sa) linked parents with entering Paradise in other hadiths as well:
A parent is the best of the gates of Jannah; so if you wish, keep to the gate, or lose it. (Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah)
One day, a Companion said to the Prophet,
“O Messenger of Allah! I want to go out and fight (in Jihad) and I have come to ask your advice.” He said, “Do you have a mother?” “Yes.” “Then stay with her, for Paradise is beneath her feet.” (Nasa’i)
Conversely, being bad to parents is one of the greatest sins, listed right after shirk (associating ‘partners’ with Allah):
The Prophet was asked about the great sins. He said, ‘They are: (1) To join others in worship with Allah, (2) To be undutiful to one’s parents. (3) To kill a person (which Allah has forbidden to kill) (i.e. to commit the crime of murder). (4) And to give false witness.’” (Bukhari)
What does being good to your parents mean? Hasan Ayoob explains in his book, quoting from Zad al-Ma’d, that “being dutiful to parents includes providing them with the money they need as well as helping the m to live a better life.” (318)
But realize this – it’s not just another good deed you can do to earn rewards. It’s an obligation on us to take care of our parents. And when we give them the money they need, we’re not doing charity on them, we’re giving them their due rights. Just like our children and our wives, our parents have a right to our property and time.
So, instead of feeling all too impressed with ourselves for being so good, we should look at it as a debt we owe to them for all they have done for us.
One day, Abdullah ibn ‘Umar saw a Yamani man going around the Ka’bah while carrying his mother on his back, and reciting poetry. The man then asked, ‘Ibn ‘Umar, do you think that I have repaid her?’ Ibn ‘Umar replied, ‘No, not even for a single groan.’ (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad)
My biology teacher at school once said to us, “I only realized what my mother suffered when giving birth to me when I saw my wife’s suffering when giving birth to our child.”
Even if we exhaust ourselves in doing good to our parents, we can never completely repay the debt we owe to them. If we can take this attitude when dealing with them, if we do good to them out of gratitude, “as they brought me up [when I was] small,” then harshness towards them will look like an abominable crime.
1. Take care of your own health.
You need to be in good shape first before you can cope with taking care of others. Be aware of your own physical and psychological problems, spend some money on curing yourself, see a professional, take medicines, eat good food and exercise. Taking care of yourself will equip you with the capability to be a responsible child to your parents.
2. Use help and share responsibilities.
If you’re finding the responsibilities overwhelming, remember that you don’t have to do it all alone. Ask your siblings to share the work. Hire a nurse or a healthcare professional to take some of the care off your own shoulder. Doing this will make your share of the responsibilities seem do-able and even enjoyable.
3. Build a strong bond with your parents.
If your image of your parents is two old people like all other old people of the world, taking care of them will seem like a burden without any immediate reward. But if you connect with your parents like a friend, take a share of their thoughts and their everyday life, play with them and laugh with them; the bond you will create will itself be a reward.
APA. “Elder Abuse and Neglect: In Search of Solutions.” American Psychological Association. APA, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2017. <http://www.apa.org/pi/aging/resources/guides/elder-abuse.aspx>.
Ayoob, Hasan. Social Manners in Islam. Trans. Muhammad Hamza Husein. Cairo: Dar Al-Salam, 2006. Print.
Khan, Nouman Ali. “Quran Aur Hum” Episode 5. Bukhari Records, 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2017. <www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JWRB0gNeWU>
Mander, Harsh. “Neglect and Abuse: The Reality of India’s Elderly People.” Hindustan Times. Hindustan Times, 02 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2017. <http://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/neglect-and-abuse-the-reality-of-india-s-elderly-people/story-2QYQf5DNGne1yVNuMHxcpL.html>.