Being brought to urban centres a possible cause of mental health issues among the elderly

Younten Tshedup  

Rural to urban migration is not only emptying villages, but is recognised as a potential cause of mental health issues, especially among the aging population.

Changes to one’s living environment, especially for the elderly, are known to have a psychological impact on people. It is identified as one of the many possible reasons for mental health issues among Bhutanese.

Sharing his experience during one of the mental health discussions earlier this month, senior psychiatrist, Dr Damber K Nirola said that many urban residents today are bringing their parents from the villages to live in places like Thimphu and Paro. “Old parents from the villages are called to babysit. They are housed in big buildings with over 10 households, but the irony is that the one doesn’t know his or her neighbour.”

Dr Nirola said that when old people remain shut inside closed rooms with no one to interact with, they can become depressed. “This is a new trend we are seeing at the hospitals today,” he said, adding that with increased life expectancy and a larger population of elderly people, cases of dementia are becoming more common.

Dementia is a condition where the ability to remember, think, and make decisions are impaired causing disruptions to everyday activities.   Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.

“People suffering from this condition are not able to take care of their own needs. When such people are left all alone at home, you cannot expect them to feel mentally able. 

This is a big challenge and it will only continue to grow,” said Dr Nirola.

Two years ago, Sangay Khandu brought his mother to Thimphu from Chaskhar, Mongar. As a nurse at the national referral hospital, Sangay is frequently assigned to night shifts. “I’m always worried about her when I have to spend the night at the hospital. She has been asking me to send her back to the village.”

Sangay said that it is difficult for his mother to communicate and socialise with the neighbours. “Maybe it’s because of the different backgrounds they all come from, which has made socialising difficult. I’m planning to take her back to the village, but then she would still be alone there.”

76-year-old Pema from Martshala, Samdrupjongkhar came to visit her daughter in Thimphu in July 2019. Due to the pandemic, she could not return. “Except when my daughter is at home with me, I don’t enjoy staying here. I want to go back to my village, to my cattle and fields. I feel suffocated here,” she said.

Dr Nirola said that although the government has recently started observing October as the month of the older people, more focus needs to be given to the elderly. “I see some people hire helpers to be with the sick in the hospital because people have work responsibilities and don’t have time.”

With urbanisation and the demands of capitalism, many say the once vibrant social cohesion, community vitality, and care for the elderly are fast fading in the country.

“My late mother had seven children. She died of loneliness as all of us were working and had no time to stay with her,” said a senior executive. “My only regret is I had no time for my late mother. I was too busy with my work,” he said.