The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed June 15 as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.
It describes elder abuse as “a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action” in relationships where there is an expectation of trust, causing harm or distress.
The United Nations and the World Health Organization say they expect the number of abused older adults over age 60 may reach 320 million by 2050, and note that at least 1 billion people worldwide are 60 or older.
Abuse can lead to serious physical injuries and long-term psychological problems for the elderly.
On the surface, this may seem like a non-issue in the Muslim community. Muslims are routinely reminded of the Islamic duty to treat all elders with respect, but especially parents. Verses from the Quran remind Muslims of this, that even saying “Uff” to them is forbidden. Other teachings stress that there are negative consequences of mistreating parents, in this world and the Next. This is emphasized by scholars, Imams, Khateebs, and community leaders.
However, anecdotal evidence makes it clear elder abuse is happening in the Muslim community.
Khalid Iqbal is founding director of the Rahmaa Institute based in Virginia, which offers family development through premarital and marital counseling.
He recalls an incident when he used to work at a Masjid in Virginia a few years ago. An elderly couple was left at the door in the middle of summer, with both the husband and wife wrapped in sheets. They went and they sat in the Masjid area. Later, he and the mosque’s administration found out that the elderly couple had been physically abused and kicked out of the family home by one of their children.
Mona Kafeel, executive director of the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation, which runs women’s shelters and recently opened a senior home, has seem similar cases.
One was of an elderly Muslim woman who immigrated to the US over 30 years ago. She was kicked out of her house and treated so badly that “she attempted suicide a few times. Now we are housing her in that senior home,” Kafeel said.
In another case referred to Kafeel’s organiztion via a mosque, an 80-year-old Muslim woman who could not speak English and who uses a walker was thrown out of her home.
“In our community elder abuse means that parents, either a single mother or both parents, are being mistreated by their offsprings, mainly,” said Kafeel. “There is a certain level of care that is needed and they are not being provided (that). In extreme cases they are being kicked out of their homes.”
She added this is most common in families where parents are living with their children and are dependent on them. Kafeel noted that in these families, the seniors rely on their children to be cared for, and have or have no retirement plan beyond that.
No Statistics Available On Elder Abuse Among Muslims
“Most of the literature on elder abuse is filled up with theoretical things rather than acutal statistics,” said Iqbal in reference to elder abuse in the Muslim community.
“I found one study from Saudi Arabia, but the population they checked was so low it would not qualify. It was less than 100 people and there was not much substance to that study,” he added.
Iqbal said another study he found from Malaysia university had the same problem.
“I would like to request my Muslim organizations and Muslim researchers that this is one area that has been neglected and we need to work on it” he advised. But he said this research has to be part of a larger research project about Muslim elders’ lives in general, as well as trying to find out what kind of support tbey need.
Less Physical, More Financial And Emotional Abuse
Physical abuse tends to be less common in cases of elder abuse among Muslims that Kafeel and Iqbal have encountered. In some cases, it is actually retaliation for childhood trauma.
“Usually it's the father who had anger issues in the past,” Iqbal said. “Then when they grow old, sometimes it’s a payback kind of thing. The children they respond [...] to them in kind, with physical abuse.”
In other cases, it is an elderly Muslim women being abused by a husband who has done so for decades.
“Most of them carry it as a history from early on in the marriage,” said Iqbal.
He added that, “it’s very very hard for them to just leave their abuser. I have seen in so many cases where once they leave, they go through a long period of self-blame [...]” so they stay in an abusive relationship.
The more common forms of abuse seem to be financial and emotional.
“The parents have earned and the children have taken the way and are not giving them a decent livelihood, even for their needs,” Kafeel said.
“One of the biggest issues that I am seeing is the question of inheritance,” Iqbal said. “The parents are pressured into if they have property or whatever it is, children kind of coerce them (it) into writing in their will, and they are pressured into that, which in my opinion is a kind of abuse.
“I have seen legal cases against parents in this area,” he added, and noted that sometimes that financial abuse is directed at the surviving parent if one of the parents has died.
Muslim seniors, like other seniors, are also targeted by financial scammers, therby losing needed savings. Older people are swindled out of over $3 billion yearly.
Iqbal shared the story of one senior who came from a well-off family and owned his own home, but was conned after someone sold him the whole roof of a house after a windstorm.
In another case, an elderly Muslim man came to Iqbal asking for money. In this case again, Iqbal said he was deceived by people trying to get him involved in a scam.
In terms of emotional abuse, this is by far the most common type of abuse, both Kafeel and Iqbal said. This includes primarily emotional neglect leading to loneliness.
This kind of abuse includes not staying in touch with and visiting elderly parents who are in nursing or senior homes.
Iqbal said during his visits to seniors who are in hospitals and nursing homes through a local Masjid program, he found “they welcome strangers to come and talk to them but it’s not the same as their own children and grandchildren when they come visit them or relatives.”
He added that family visits and connections are “therapy for these seniors and they love it and they cherish it.
“I’m sure everyone goes to the movies,” he said. “It takes about two hours to go to the movies. Set your priorities right. Instead of going to the movies or a dinner, go visit your mother or father in the elder care facility if that is the case. Make it a celebratory kind of visit.”
Solutions - A Sense Of Meaning
Kafeel and Iqbal suggested that giving Muslim seniors a sense of purpose is key in helping mitigate elder abuse in the Muslim community, given the current lack of resources.
“A reason, a purpose for them is so important. That’s their survival,” Kafeel said.
She noted that the families who will give their elders a reason to live, then they will take care of themselves.
“We have many senior groups from different mosques,” she said of her community in Texas. “When you ask them, ‘Can you volunteer at a school, or some other palace because the refugee population needs you’, they will do whatever they can.”
Iqbal cited the example of the Rose Club at the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Virginia, which he is involved with, a group that engages Muslim seniors in projects to benefit the community.
“Usually we meet every Friday before Juma for an hour. We chit chat, have a cup of tea, some things to eat and we just talk. And that is so relaxing. Just talking, just discussing things, ‘takes care of the emotional aspect’,” he said, in terms of addressing seniors’ loneliness.
“Elders can give back to the community so much because they have experience and they bring in that experience from different cultures, different points of view,” he said. “What do we do with them?. Especially with elderly women, for example? Do we have any support system for them? I don’t think so.”
Caregiver Burnout And Toxic Elders
One often overlooked aspect in elder abuse is the role of caregiver burnout, and problematic behavior.
“A lot of times elders are toxic,” Kafeel said. And overburdened caregivers, who can become or have long been, the targets of an elder Muslim’s abusive behavior, are taught to continue tolerating it.
“The narrative is you’re not a good offspring and you’ll go to Hell,” she noted.
“For us as Muslims, especially Imams, the first thing is to acknowledge that, yes you have to take care of the elderly, and compassion fatigue is there.”
“You need to hear Imams giving permission, instead of taking it to one extreme where you have to continually help your parents, even in the face of divorce ,” she said, referring to the strain caregiving often takes on marriages.
“So many men, so many women will hear this loud and clear, that it’s okay they have been given that permission to take care of themselves and to take care of their own marriage,” she said.
A core issue that often occurs, Kafeel noted, was the lack of boundaries between adult children and their parents. The latter, in a number of cases, feel they have free reign to continue treating their adult children as they did before marriage, with a lack of respect for privacy in the couple’s married life, or even in other personal matters.
“Imams need to make people understand that this trickles down to generations,” said Kafeel. “Just like domestic violence is intergenerational, so is not having boundaries.”
She and Iqbal both said a lack of education is key in addressing this and other issues related
Added to this is the stigma in the Muslim community of arranging housing for parents outside of a family home where three generations live together, often in the face of generational, linguistic, and cultural barriers and misunderstandings.
This, Kafeel said, is leading to Muslims in their 50s and 60s today looking ahead and seeking a different alternative in their retirement years.
The Rise Of Muslim Senior Homes
Muslim senior housing is an option that goes beyond the nursing home setup that is currently the only option often available today.
“Instead of mega Masjids, why not have an apartment complex beside the Masjid so seniors can stay there and enjoy each other’s company and walk to the Masjid and enjoy praying,” suggested Iqbal. “Little things like this can go a long way.
“I think it is practical,” he added.”If we start to think on those lines, at least one day, things will turn out. We start to give back to our seniors and parents who have done so much for us.”
Kafeel said today, many senior Muslims are open to the idea of Muslim senior homes because “everyone understands living in a three- generation house is not easy”, but living independently but among those who shame the same culture and issues is much easier.
She said she has also seen investor interest in this idea. Kafeel said with the small senior home she runs with the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation, “I thought we would run it for two years. Based on that I will think of expansion. But the sheer numbers I am getting, I am unable to house them. I have a few investors willing to give us land and build it. Those are a few things I am pleasantly surprised (about).”
Ultimately, the goal is the safety and comfort of Muslim seniors in a way that balances the needs and rights of every generation.
“The reality of the matter is every child is who they are because of the sacrifices of the parents,” Iqbal said. “So I think when it’s time to come back and give back, they should always be in the forefront and give back.”