The ethics of looking after our elderly

“If either or both of them reach old age, say not to them (so much as) ‘uff’ nor chide them, and speak to them with generous words, and make yourself submissively gentle to them with compassion and say: My Lord, have mercy on them, for they did care for me when I was little.” [Surat Al-Isra: 23-4]

The strain of caring for one’s elderly in their most difficult time of their lives is both an honour and a blessing and above all, it is an opportunity for great spiritual growth. I’m sure we’ve all seen at least one of those horrifying videos of elderly people being hit or abused by their care workers in retirement homes. As some one who has the blessing of having two grandparents alive, and living within a two-minute drive from my own residence, it pains me to think that something of that sort could ever happen to either of them. What pains me even more is the idea that the shelf life of our elderly is something that comes to an end when we don’t have the energy to look after them any more.

On my way to my previous job, I used to pass a newly built set of homes designed for the elderly. It used to depress me every time I would pass it; they were beautiful, and the images plastered outside the residence showed happy pensioners who seemed to be enjoying the prospect of living their final days alone and in a place where 9 times out of 10, they would be left alone to reminisce the days of yore and more importantly, to remember all the people that left them during the most fragile time of their lives. That being said, some people genuinely cannot look after their elderly, maybe due to their work schedules, or not having space at home, so to each their own.

In a speech at the National Children and Adults Services (NCAS) conference, Jeremy Hunt 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 “chronically lonely,” and have become 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.”

He then said that to solve these issues, we should follow the example of people living in Asia by taking in elderly relatives that 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.”

With this, it begs the question, what does Islam say about the elderly? First and foremost, the Holy Prophet (pbuh) states,

“Venerating Allah (swt) includes venerating the old from among the Muslims.” [Al-Kafi: V2, Page165]

What kind of status do our elderly have that venerating them equals the veneration of the Creator of the heavens and Earth? To venerate someone is to revere them and regard them with great respect. Do we do that when it comes to our elderly, or do we brush off their ramblings as a mind losing its youth?

Further to this, the Imam’s have spoken extensively about this to their companions and followers. For example, Imam Al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) instructs people to “Exalt the old ones from amongst you and maintain relations between your kin,” and then continues to say that “One who neither honours our old, nor has mercy on our young is not one of us.” [Al-Kafi: V2, Page 165] Needless to say, this shows us the importance that our religion places on the respect and care necessary for our elderly, and as the Quran states, more specifically for our parents.

So what are the small ways that I can look after someone who is elderly?

  • Show respect, and be patient

It’s very easy to lose patience with the elderly, especially when they tend to nag about something. Respect them not only with the use of kind words, but through your actions. Offer them a hand when walking, and ensure they don’t catch you rolling your eyes, the biggest defence mechanism we tend to make use of.

  • Help them with technology

Yes, the font on their phone is hard to read, the sound is too low and the latest update just doesn’t make sense to them. Sit down, explain it to them and figure out their settings with them. Sometimes, that phone or tablet is their only link to the outside world and possibly their only means of entertainment.

  • Visit them, and ask about them

Attempt to visit them at least once a week and aim to give them a call (or possibly send them a message) every day. I swear to you, nothing will give them a boost in the morning more than that two-minute phone call will.

  • Offer to help around the house (and check their utilities)

Our elderly tend to take pride in their ability to do things without help but they will gracefully accept your help, should it be offered. So make them their favourite meal, or hoover the house when you visit them. Also, it becomes harder for them to fix small things around the house so make an attempt to do so yourself, or locate the professionals that can help you to do so.

  • Attempt to take them to appointments or drive them around

My grandfather tends to feel down sometimes and the one thing that can cheer him up is for him to get out of the house; at times he will actually ask to go to the local supermarket to help with the weekly shopping so he can zoom up and down the aisles on the electronic scooter. Also, I’m positive that there are a plethora of appointments that they need to attend; if you can, take time to take them to their appointments and show them that you genuinely care for their health.

  • Don’t be ashamed of the helping them with self-grooming

Sometimes it’s as simple as no longer being able to reach their toenails, or not being able to trim their beard without their hands shaking. There is no shame in helping them with grooming, and better yet, why not take them out for a pampering day at the barber/salon, and make them feel like the amazing person they truly are.

  • Share stories of your day, and listen to their experiences and wisdom

They’ve probably spent all day at home and they will feed off the small stories of your day with relish – make them feel involved in your life and as if their advice on how to deal with your boss, or maybe the local butcher, is worth listening to. Even better than this, draw inspiration from the things they have been through in life, and learn from the circumstances that have shaped them into the person that they are today.

  • Honour them with your actions, so they know they will one day leave a legacy behind them in the form of your spirit

An old Arabic phrase that is thrown about when someone wants to thank you for something is ‘Rahm-Allah waldaykom,’ – may Allah have mercy on your parents (for their upbringing). What sweeter way to gift your parents and family blessings from Allah (swt) than through your actions. Let them see that your actions will elevate their status on the Day of Judgement through others thanking them for the time and effort they have made in our upbringing.

It’s the small things that go a long way, so do your bit and watch the way in which blessings will filter into your life, and the comfort that your elderly will feel in the time which they need it most in their lives.