Our Palestinian Elderly: A Sociological View
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 02.11.2007:
By Dr. Bernard Sabella
The other night I saw the movie Le Jardin de Jad, or the Garden of Jad, by Georgi Lazarevski. It is a touching movie about elderly Palestinians who live in a home for the elderly that is run by the Sisters of Notre Dame of Sorrows in Abu Dis. With the building of the Separation Wall right across from their home, these elderly Palestinians experience an increasing sense of isolation from the world as they have known it. Relatives cannot visit regularly as freedom of movement has been restricted by the rapidly encroaching concrete Wall. During the movie, the elderly expressed their own reflections and thoughts about what is happening around them as they reminisced about various moments, relationships, and events of their lives. One old man, in particular, expressed his deep frustration as he watched the news, with scenes of Western politicians who spoke about advancing the stalled peace process. He concluded that the Palestinian cause had been compromised by the absence of a sense of historic justice and fairness among these politicians.
Jad, after whom the film is titled, goes around smoking his cigarettes and never saying a word as he watches young and old Palestinians who try to evade Israeli border policemen as they climb over unfinished parts of the Wall in their attempts to reach Jerusalem. At the end of the movie, Jad himself climbs over a part of the unfinished Wall and walks past Israeli border policemen. Whether this is construed as an act of defiance or as an assertion of the natural right of free movement depends on the viewer’s interpretation.
Watching the movie led me to reflect on Palestinians who are 65 or older. Comprising only 3.1 percent of the entire population (3.3 percent in the West Bank and 2.6 percent in the Gaza Strip), this group of roughly 120,000 people are the historical, cultural, and political repertoire of our entire society. Traditionally in Palestinian culture, the older one becomes, the more respect and deference one receives. The old wisdom has it that respect and care for parents, as they grow older, brings rewards of all sorts. Parents, on the other hand, often had many children as an “insurance policy” for their golden years. The realities of the modern world and our consumer society have changed the traditional roles of parents and even the respect and deference we used to give them. In a traditional setting, the elderly had the power to decide crucial transition moments in the lives of their children, especially regarding marriage, work, and economic pursuits. This is no longer applicable for the most part. Consequently respect for the elderly and the wisdom and folkloric repertoire that we expected from them have been replaced by more practical considerations; particularly so as more of us reach old age with a life expectancy of 71.5 years for men and 73.0 years for women, compared to a life-expectancy rate of less than 50 years a century ago.
This transformation in the Palestinian age structure creates new social, economic, and medical realities. In effect it also changes the traditional roles of parents and children, as more of the younger generation looks for employment and sufficiency for their own families. Most Palestinian families at present are of the nuclear type: husband, wife, and children. Only one out of five families counts an elderly person in its household, whereas only one in ten households are headed by an elderly person.
Statistics aside, our world has changed and so have relationships across generations. It is rare nowadays to see children kissing their fathers’ or mothers’ hands on public occasions, such as high school or university graduation, though it still sometimes occurs. The patriarchal role that so much depended on the strength of the “purse” of the patriarch/father as he dispensed his favours to his many children has been replaced by increasing parental dependency on their children to meet medical, physical, and other needs. Although our religious heritage stresses our obligation to care for our parents, it seems that our practice is increasingly delinquent on this score. Necessities of life and the ever more costly attention to the elderly are forcing us as a society to start looking for ways to deal with their demands and requirements of life.
By 2020, we are expected to have more than 172,000 elderly people in the Palestinian Territories. Although their percentage of the population is not expected to go past the 4 percent mark, these numbers tell of new challenges not only for the elderly but also for the society as a whole. Almost 50 percent of the elderly suffer from chronic diseases; 9 percent are disabled and in need of mobility assistance; and almost 1 in 3 elderly persons have a vision disability. These figures point to the need to create caring centres or establish help networks that would enable our elderly to live with dignity. Although many among us would resist the temptation to send our parents to an old-age home, keeping old parents at home while not fully caring for them is also unacceptable. We all like to be seen as children who have not let their parents live out their last years or months in an institution; this is loyalty at its best. But if we are working, and our spouses and children are working or studying full time, and we cannot offer our parents the dignified and necessary care they deserve, then what should we do? This is a difficult question, indeed, that covers personal, social, and religious dimensions and complexities.
Almost four out of ten elderly people in Palestinian society live below the poverty line; a 2003 survey in Gaza indicates that five out of ten elderly persons are poor. At present, the majority of the Palestinian population live at or near the poverty line; it is suspected that the percentage of elderly who live below the poverty line is much higher than the figures quoted above. If this is so, then we may be dangerously close to a situation where hundreds of Palestinian elderly live in substandard conditions. Using cultural, religious, and social pressures to encourage us to treat our old parents well would not help here as more of us find ourselves in a situation of poverty. The elderly poor, however, cannot be allowed to continue to suffer, and the society should come to their aid in providing the needed attention and intervention.
Jad in his garden, beautifully kept by the Sisters of Notre Dame of Sorrows, can afford to be philosophical and reflective about his surroundings and about the encroaching Separation Wall. The care and love that he receives from the Sisters provide him with dignity during the last years of life, as physical restrictions and demands are overcome. There are, however, thousands of Palestinian Jads who have no garden and no one to care for them. The Separation Wall, the Israeli military checkpoints, and the resulting travel and mobility restrictions across the Palestinian Territories make life for our elderly even worse.
I am reminded of the story of the 70-year old grandmother who was waiting in line to cross the Hawwarah checkpoint. She left the line in order to tell the 23-year old Israeli officer in charge that she was sick and urgently needed to get to hospital. The officer, using insulting language, told her that because she got out of line, she would have to go back to the end of the line as punishment; in other words, she would have to wait an extra couple of hours before being allowed to cross the checkpoint.
Our grandparents are fantastic people: they have taught us all how to survive in spite of everything. Some of them are so strong-willed that we who are part of the younger generations still look up to them with awe and respect. The message of our elderly is that this is our land, our culture, and our society, and we need to persevere. Our obligation is to ensure that the Separation Wall, the checkpoints, and all the other imposed restrictions do not deny our elderly the right to live in dignity. We can do this not only through attending to their medical and other basic needs but also through encouraging them to resist the effects of all forms of restrictions and, as they have always taught us, to choose to live as free and proud Palestinians.
Dr. Bernard Sabella is a PLC Member from Jerusalem. He taught sociology at Bethlehem University for over 20 years and is highly engaged in interchurch and interfaith relations.