The Prayer Book

Dr Shirali Raina
The old man was praying so I stood by the hospital bed, going over the nurse’s notes, waiting for him to complete his prayers. He caught my eye, put down his prayer book and let me examine him. This had become a routine for the past week or so, his putting down the book was a green signal for me. A frail old man carrying vestiges of his better days, had been brought to the hospital by his sons in a dehydrated state. Within a couple of days of being treated, he had started looking better so I told one of the sons that we could send his father home in a day or two and with good care he would progress well. As the son did not seem to register the advice, I repeated it with a little more force. ‘I think he is better off here madam”, whispered the thin boy standing by the foot of the bed. He was looking at the disappearing back of the patient’s son. I had barely noticed this young boy all these days;” Are you related to him? “He shook his head.
What the attendant boy started to narrate is a story that we often come across in the newspapers. Looking at the old faded clothes and an ill groomed countenance it was hard to imagine that this man had been a well to do business man with a big house in the affluent south Delhi neighbourhood of my hospital. With a sense of quiet resignation enveloping his gaunt face, the old man gave me a tremulous smile. ‘Rehne do’ the feeble whisper was a plea.
After he had lost his wife a few years ago; the sons had occupied the two floors of his house and banished the old father to the one room barsati at the top of the house. He was provided a bed, a fan and his frugal meals were sent up to him; he was not expected to join the family for meals.This young attendant and his prayer book were the only two companions he had. Considering his age and the summer heat, it was no surprise that the old man had collapsed. “Doctor please don’t discharge him, please keep him a little longer. The heat will kill him”, implored the young boy. Within the next couple of days, the sons got the patient shifted from the general ward to a shared ward with cubicles which provided some privacy, andI mistakenly attributed this to a change of heart.
On my rounds the next day, I was surprised to seepeople in his cubicle and the nurse on duty arguing loudly, asking them to leave. “They have been here for an hour, pestering the old man. There is a lawyer with them,” she whispered to me. Apparently the old man had refused to sign a new will and this had upset the family. ‘They must have thought it to be a five minutes job to bully the old man in signing away the property’ the nurse was annoyed. A few days later, I was surprised to find the attendant boy standing at the door of my cabin. ‘They took his thumbprint by force’, he said helplessly. I asked the hospital management if we could call the police. ‘We don’t need to get involved and neither do you.” As this was my first appointment as a practising doctor, I gave in to the management’s decision. Probably, my sense of survival pushed back my sense of justice.Next morning I somehow wanted to visit him first before checking on the other patients. To my surprise, the bed was empty! The ward boy was cleaning up the cubicle. ‘He died in his sleep. They took him away a little while ago’. The frail man had probably given up his will to live after registering the last act of apathy from his children.As the boy sanitised the space, I saw the familiar prayer book on top of the discarded bed clothes.I reached out and for a reason unknown, picked up the prayer book and put it in the pocket of my white coat.
Diwali is around the corner and I started the Diwali cleaning ritual todaywith the small temple at home. As I shifted out the contents, a thin book floated down. I occasionally read out of it, smooth out its yellowed,tattered edges and keep it back.I have held on to the old man’s prayer book for the last 26 years, a reminder that sometimes empathy alone is not enough, it needs to be followed by action. Much needs to be done to address elder abuse so that no old mother is ‘forgotten’ in a temple or an old father put aboard a train to an unknown destination.
Author’s Note:
* National surveys carried out by Help Age India (2014, 2015)) recorded a high incidenceof elder abuse,experienced by 50% of elders who were surveyed. The most common perpetrators of abuse seem to be immediate family members.The abuse can occur in multiple forms like denial of basics such as food, shelter, clothing and medicine, lack of interaction/being ignored,emotional and financial abuse or physical ill treatment.The most common reason cited by in the survey is ‘greed and desire to inherit property of the elder by the next generation’ followed by ‘stressful lifestyles’ and ‘lack of patience in the younger generation’.
* Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007.
Many elderly citizens may not be aware but there is a law in the country to protect them from abuse and abandonment.Under this law, dependent parents and grandparents can ask for maintenance (food, clothing, residence, and medical attendance and treatment) from their children and for childless elderly citizens, maintenance can be sought from their legal heir. Any individual who is found responsible for abandoning a senior citizen can be jailed for up to 3 months, and/or fined.