Newspaper article International New York Times

Manzur's Lonely End

Newspaper article International New York Times

Manzur's Lonely End

Article excerpt

My uncle died sadly isolated -- an increasingly common predicament in Bangladesh's aging society.

One of my father's older brothers, Manzur Anam, died last week. He was in his early 70s, and though the medical reasons for his death were many, it was loneliness that killed him.

There is a prevailing sense that the old in places like Bangladesh age with their large extended families around them, and that age gives them power, respect and status. It is in the West, we have been told, where they disrespect their elders and abandon them to nursing homes. But while the aging population in Bangladesh may have enjoyed some measure of security in the past, dramatic changes in the social fabric -- rapid urbanization, mass migration and a focus on the nuclear family -- have heralded a transformation in the way we regard and treat our old.

My uncle lived in Dhaka's modern architectural convention: the apartment building built on the site of an old family estate. He came home from work every day and sat on one corner of his 1950s green sofa and ate dinner in front of the television. On Fridays, he played a regular poker game he'd begun with friends 40 years ago.

In the servants' quarters lived his housekeeper, Lucky, a young woman who looked after him with efficiency and tenderness in his last days (he was estranged from both his wife and his son). In the rest of the apartment building were the extended family -- the sons of my father's other three brothers, and their wives and children. His nephews (my cousins) dutifully kept vigil at his bedside through several long illnesses.

Yet, there was no one, in the end, to hear my uncle cry out when he fell from his bed. It was Lucky who discovered him the morning after his stroke, lying helpless on the floor where he'd fallen.

Bangladesh self-identifies as a young country with an old culture. The nation itself is only 43 years old; we refer to ourselves as a young democracy, an emerging economy, a nascent political culture.

Even our anxieties are those of a nation whose young dominate the national agenda: With a median age of 24, we worry that, if they are not educated and provided with employment, the young men will become radicalized, the young women will marry too early. At the same time, we fetishize a past in which the family unit was large and capacious enough to absorb the needs of all generations.

So how will Bangladesh cope with its aging population? The number of seniors is set to rise sharply, largely because of improved health care. It is estimated that nearly 44 million Bangladeshis -- 23 percent of the projected population -- will be over the age of 60 by 2050. This demographic shift will force us to think critically about aging, what the anthropologist Lawrence Cohen calls "the body in time."

We still revere the old in the ways we always have, by referring to an old person as the head of the family. …

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