Out of more than 25,000 calls that New Delhi-based NGO Agewell Foundation receives every day, a call from a distressed son is rare. The phone calls are just the tip of a huge paradigm shift in care for the aged that has now become a daughter's domain.
The financially independent daughter, married or otherwise, is not only increasingly able to support her parents but also offer something extra that a son may not be able to — emotional care. "A daughter is able to connect with her parents on an emotional level while a son may be more mechanical in his approach," says chairman Himanshu Rath, who heads the NGO dedicated to promoting the care and rights of older Indians.
And the parents are increasingly ignoring tradition and societal taboos to embrace her support. Geronotologist Mala Kapur Shankardass offers the example of a woman who finally convinced her ailing, old parents to move in with her:
When the girl was living in Delhi with her husband, taking care of her parents was not a problem. In addition, while her brother was in the US and would send in some money, it was the daughter who was physically present for her parents. Her father had Parkinsons and her mother had mobility issues.
When the time came for the husband-wife to move to Bangalore, it was heartbreaking for the daughter. She tried to convince her parents to move with her, but they would not hear of it. After a month of continuously changing maids, and their deteriorating health, she put her foot down. The parents are happy and so is the daughter.
There are many reasons why the new arrangement works better. Dr Shankardass underlines the ease of communication which enables a daughter to better understand and cater to a parents' needs. While studies have proven time and again that women are better caregivers, a daughter — as opposed to a daughter-in-law — is always in a better position to openly talk to, or even reprimand her parents without it becoming an issue.
"It's really about small things which a daughter notices about a parent which matter in the long term. For instance, a daughter just has to look at her parents to understand what they might be thinking," says Rath. Daughters are also just more willing to undertake the responsibility.
Noor Ahmad Hasina (name changed), 45, agrees, offering her own situation: "My mother has been living with us for the past two years because my brother could no longer handle her constant need for attention. He is young, just 28 and obviously wants to spend time with his friends instead of finding ways to keep my mother occupied or entertained.
My mum never said a word that she felt lonely. It was when my brother started noticing that money was always missing from his wallet and he blamed the maid for it that my mother confessed. She said she was paying the maid extra so that she could stay back a little longer and talk to her. I felt awful.
I wanted her at home with me. I live with my in-laws and my husband. While initially my mother felt strange living in a house and surroundings that were so unfamiliar, she's very happy now. And my mother-in-law is thrilled because she's found company in my mother. Touch wood, it's quite wonderful really."
Sometimes it's not a matter of choosing the daughter over the son. In nuclear families where parents have only a girl child, the daughter is the sole source of support. "The reason I opted for teaching as a profession was because I am an only child and I wanted to be there for my parents. It's a comfortable job and allows me the luxury to pamper them now that I am earning. I know the reason they had one child was because they wanted to give me the best education and the best life they could within their means. I love them, and today I am a very proud daughter of very proud parents (she smiles)," says Manjari Chaturvedi, 29, a professor at Delhi University.
According to Sushmita De, counsellor, Rashtriya Mahila Kalyan Evam Samaj Utthan Samiti, family norms are also changing to accommodate the change."We have noticed that increasingly mother-in-law’s don't seem to have too much of a problem if their daughter-in-law wants to bring her parents into their home, or relocate close-by, especially in urban areas," she says.
Men too are increasingly willing to welcome their in-laws. "When I got married, I had made it very clear to my husband that I wanted my mother to stay with us. He has never had any issues," says Aditi Nautiyal, 36. A son may be ceding the care of his parents to his sister, but he is also taking on the responsibility for his in-laws.
More importantly, as the baton of care passes from son to daughter, it may be time to set aside old preconceptions about the value of a girl child. Gautami Srivastava, 70, sums it up well: "People think that since my only child, Sunainaa, has been there for us financially and emotionally throughout her life, they feel compelled to remark ‘Mrs Srivastava, Sunainaa is like a son to you.' I always correct them and say, ‘No, she is just like a daughter to me'."