Every morning 77-year-old Sarmaya Acharya neatly lays out packets of cigarettes and chewing tobacco, shampoo sachets, and nail polish bottles and sets up her small stall at Bhanu Chok in Dharan. The mother of two lives by herself and uses earnings from the shop to pay her monthly rent.
Sarmaya's son is settled in Kathmandu, and abandoned her shortly after her husband's death and hasn't come to see her in three years. She has never met her daughter-in-law, or her grandchildren.
Thousands of 60 plus Nepalis across the country find themselves orphaned at old age. Abandoned by their families, they are forced to spend their retirement years in old age homes, on the streets or in their own residence with no one to look after them.
Joint families with grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins all living under the same roof were the norm in Nepal till even a decade ago. Older members were respected and valued, and played a vital role in the transfer of knowledge, skills, and traditions. In an economy so heavily reliant on agriculture, it made sense for families to stick together because grandparents would help raise children, while parents worked on the farm.
While the democracy movement in 1990 bought about major political and economic changes, it also ruptured this social contract. The economy expanded, new jobs opened up in the manufacturing and services sector, and many flocked to the cities. The decade long civil war hastened this trend, and elderly family members were left behind. With more and more Nepalis opting to work and settle abroad, the number of abandoned aged parents is likely to rise.
The middle class urban lifestyle, nuclear families living in cramped rented quarters, and premium on personal freedom and financial independence over customs, have brought about a significant change in attitude.
"Grandparents were shown a lot of respect and well-loved by families, but that culture has slowly faded away. We are so busy running after money and making a name for ourselves, we have forgotten some of our good social values," explains sociologist Suresh Dhakal.
Pressures of modern life mean that many Nepalis don't even have the time or energy to take care of their children, so looking after aged parents becomes an economic and emotional burden. The average family size in Nepal has shrunk from 5.4 in 2001 to 4.7, and the capital has an even smaller family size of 3.7.
While the poor elderly are the most vulnerable, there have been many cases where well-off parents have been kicked out after handing over their property to their children, or after being coerced into giving up their wealth.
According to the 1991 census, there were 1,071,000 Nepalis above the age of 60. In two decades that has doubled to 2,351,000 as Nepal's population ages. Senior citizens now make up nine per cent of the country's population.
In many developed countries, the state takes responsibility for citizens over 60 years and provides social security. Here, there are no such safety nets and the only state-run home for the elderly in Pashupati which houses 230 senior citizens is in a perpetual financial crunch. The dozen or so private homes in Kathmandu, Chitwan, Dhankuta, Biratnagar, and Pokhara are also overcrowded, and have to rely on donations.
Bhim Prasad Subedi from the Department of Geography at Tribhuvan University estimates that in the next 20 years the above-60 population will double, turning Nepal's demographic profile from a pyramid into an hour-glass: wide at the top and wide at the bottom.
Sarmaya's daughter visits from time to time and has been urging her to move in with her. But she says she will work and live on her own till she is physically capable. Although life has been cruel to her, she carries on with the hope of seeing her son and grandchildren one day.
With additional reporting by: Sohan Shrestha, Kamal Rimal, Chaabi Magar, and Ramesh Kumar
Read the original article in Nepali
Home away from home
Orphaned at old age,
More grandparents feel less grand as they cross the 60's line
"All my life I took care of my daughter and then my four granddaughters. But one day they all kicked me out. Since then I have lived at Devghat and worked as a gardener in a hotel in Pokhara. Now I am at this old age home, but neither my daughter who is quite well-off, nor my granddaughters who are in Japan, Australia, and Kathmandu seem to care."
"I spent all the earnings from my job in the police force on our sons' weddings. We even sold our house and gave them all the money. But when we asked one of them to take care of me and the other to look after my wife, they refused. Now they don't even want to build a house because they are worried they will have to take us in. I had no other option than to send my wife to her parents' home in Kathmandu and I have been living at the Birateshor old age home for the past four years. I wish I could spend the last few years of my life with my wife."
"My only son left for India 22 years ago and since then I have not been in touch with him and don't know his whereabouts. When it became hard for me to look after myself I asked my six daughters to come live with me. They said no. When I went to their house they refused to accept me and one of my grandsons abandoned me at Prithvi Chok in Pokhara. After that I wanted to end my life by jumping in the Seti, but an acquaintance found me and brought me to an old age home."
"I have been living alone ever since the death of my wife two years ago. All my sons live separately and I think nuclear family is a necessity of modern life. I moved from Bhojpur to Kathmandu 30 years ago to start my career as a professor. I wanted to bring my parents along, but they couldn't leave. It is better to live separately and be happy rather than living together with resentment, and I have accepted my lifestyle."