Concern for the Care of the Elderly in the Muslim Community
By Shahid Athar, MD
The care of the elderly and of the infant are no different, as helplessness and dependency is seen at both ends of life. “He brings you forth as children then (He ordains) that you reach maturity, and that you grow old. Though some of you (He causes to die) earlier, and so you might reach a term set and you might use your reasons (Qur’an: 40:67).
“Thy Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and (you show) kindness to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age (while with you), say not fie (a word of contempt), nor repulse them, but speak a gracious word, and lower your wings of submission through mercy, and pray “My Lord! have mercy on them both as they did care for me when I was little”. (17:23)
My concerns in the care for the Muslim elderly are:
Need for a care giver: Just as infants helplessly need parents, older people need their children to give care constantly and with love. Just as an infant cannot explain their needs in words, the dignified elders also don’t say themselves but it is up to the caregiver to find out. They must deliver with love and compassion. Thus I propose that the community adopt older citizens who do not have willing adult children.
Nutrition: Just as an infant needs a balanced diet, the elderly also need a diet catered to their needs. In old age appetite is poor, and constipation is a common problem. There is a lack of vitamins and calcium. The diet should be balanced, nutritious and have high fiber.
Medical care: A sick infant cannot walk to the doctor’s office, nor can a sick elderly person drive to the doctor’s office or the hospital. Someone needs to take him for tests, procedures and treatment. Again, in the absence of willing family members, this becomes the responsibility of the community.
Home: Nothing can replace the warmth of a home. Many homeless elderly live on the streets, while many elder Americans live in nursing homes in deplorable conditions. In most nursing homes, not only is medical care poor (and dangerous), but even basic needs are not attended to. Some nursing home residents die of malnutrition and complications of falls. Muslim adults and young people should understand leaving their elders in such a home is not the Qur’anic concept of “The reward for goodness is nothing but goodness”. (55:60)
Religious needs: Just as infants need their father to give Adhan in their ears, and both parents give religious education as they grow, the elders also need help in practicing Islam in their later life. An old Muslim had many children scattered all over the USA and they all loved him and wanted him to stay with them. However, he decided to live with the one who was able to take him to the mosque for Friday prayers every week.
Financial concerns: Infants don’t have financial worries as their parents take care of them and pay for all their needs but, do children take care of needs of old folks who are on social security? The cost of medical care is rising and most of it is during the last year of life. Will Medicare cover for all medical expenses? How do they find out? Where do they need to apply for Social Security Benefits? Our elders can benefit some help from counselors.
Social needs: Just as youth and children like to be with each other, the elders too enjoy the company of their age group. It is up to the community to form a Muslim senior citizen club, and arrange for a weekly meeting at the mosque or at home. Just like youth, they should be given free access on the phone to talk to each other. Those who are widowed should be encouraged to marry.
Loneliness: Two letters to Rev. Billy Graham published recently in a local newspaper caught my eye. One wrote, “I am an old man now and the worst part of being old has been loneliness. My wife passed away and none of my children live nearby; when I go to church, almost nobody talks to me”. Another letter reads, “I work in a nursing home and it really saddens me to see the way some of our patients never hear from their families or have anyone visit them. Why are some people so thoughtless?”
Conclusion: Muslim elders have many needs and it is the responsibility of the community to identify them and offer help. This can start with a simple survey of their names, addresses, phone numbers and needs. Elders in the community should live with their children, but if that is not possible, the goal of the Muslim community should be to build retirement homes for Muslim elders near a mosque. A Muslim cemetery with lots purchased for Muslims should also be a priority. The message of Islam is “mercy to mankind” – from cradle to grave.