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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Silver Surfers: Senior Citizens in India Embrace the Internet to Cope with a Lonely Future

Dennis Meredith has two sprawling bungalows on 15 acres of rich fertile country land in McCluskiegunj where he has spent his life nurturing a beautiful garden and orchard. Dennis has lived here since he was just a year old in the house his late father, Felex Meredith christened “The Hermitage.” For the past 59 years, Dennis has never considered leaving, but now a “For Sale” sign hangs over the entrance.

Dennis’ only son, Ryan, is a photographer and works on ships. Where Dennis lives, electronic communication has only just recently arrived and the area’s Internet services are not up to par with the modern information age. It takes hours and sometimes days for Dennis to send an email from the town’s only cyber café. Sometimes the connecting server drops its connection; other times, erratic electric supply stalls communication. Dennis wants to move to the city and learn how to use the Internet so that he can communicate with Ryan – uninterrupted.

Dennis’ current dilemma shows precisely how far senior citizens in India are going just to keep in touch with their children.

In India, the joint family arrangement, with sons and their families once living with their aging parents in their ancestral house, ensured that seniors never had to look elsewhere for a caregiver or companionship. From the very moment a daughter is born, parents begin the process of accepting that she will eventually marry and leave home. The Hindu religion thus delegates many responsibilities to the sons, including caring for their aging parents to eventually lighting their funeral pyres.

For seniors who have been culturally conditioned to believe that their children will be at their sides in their winter years, living alone has come as a rude awakening. Loneliness itself is largely disorienting, and the absence of family members at this critical time makes it all the more profound. Now that the ideal of the Indian family structure is becoming more and more passé, seniors are finding new ways to stay connected with their children.

But, unlike in developed nations, it’s a late start for many seniors in India. Since they did not grow up with iPods and cell phones in their back pockets, and neither were they exposed to computers at work, integrating seniors into the virtual world is initially a challenge. But more often than not, once they get over their inhibition, exploring the new world at their fingertips is becoming a fascinating experience that many seniors are slowly enjoying. With children settled abroad or in other cities, a large number of senior citizens are now seeking out tutors and training schools where they can learn to use a computer.

Silver Surfers
In 2005, the Pune-based Computer and Media Dealers Association (CMDA) started an initiative to educate seniors about the Internet. Spokesperson Sunil Gugale explains: “[Many] seniors in Pune have siblings abroad, [so] it’s beneficial for them to learn [how to use] email.”

A similar observation was made by The Rotary Club of Coimbatore East during their specialized eight-day computer course called “Silver Surfers” which was offered to seniors in 2008. Connecting loved ones through email was the course’s main objective.

Mrityujay Bhatarjee is seated in front of his PC, attentive and carefully listening to his tutor who is barely half his age as she explains how to switch the computer on. After she demonstrates the procedure, he slowly follows her directions and surprises himself when he succeeds – on his first attempt. His wrinkled face lights up.

Piyali Mukherjee, proprietor and trainer of Computer Training Center in Kolkata where Mrityujay is a student, has trained a number of senior citizens in their basic computer program.

“Silvers come with their own priorities,” she says. “They prefer to be tutored at their home and at their own pace. Competing for a certificate is not their objective.” She explains that communicating with their relatives, children and grandchildren is the driving force that brings them to the center. “They want to focus on basic functions of the computer like sending and receiving emails, viewing pictures, connecting a webcam, mobile phone and digital camera.”

She says educating seniors about computers takes patience. “The instructions have to be written down and repeated many times for them to follow. Their children who are settled abroad leave them with laptops and sophisticated mobile handsets to help them stay connected, but they often don’t teach their parents how to switch the gadgets on,” says Piyali.

Dhira Sur’s daughters, Moushumi and Arpita are married and settled in the US. Dhira is amongst the few seniors who is net savvy, thanks to her career as a Chemical Engineer. Apart from using the Internet to send emails to her daughters and video conference with her grandchildren, she does her banking online and checks the availability of railway and airline tickets.

Dhira lives alone in her spacious house in the plush locality of Salt Lake in Kolkata where other seniors like her reside. “Life is unimaginable without the Internet,” she explains, “but [still] I cannot help feeling alone despite the convenience of being able to communicate easily with my loved ones. This is why I feel the mind has to be kept occupied and the body active.”

Dhira is a member of the BJ Block Morning Walkers Association. She also sings, dances and is into drama. Dhira keeps herself occupied and busy so she can stay fit. This is her survival mantra.

“Most of all, we must be mentally prepared to face the fact that today, our children are not going to be with us in our old age,” Dhira says. “The worst fear of an old person living alone is falling ill. So besides these gadgets that keep us connected with our children, we must keep ourselves fit.”

Isolation and Depression
Even as these handy gadgets prove to be a blessing for these seniors who live alone, while they sit at their laptops and type away at the keypad, many of them do so with moist eyes. Though technology has managed to stroke back life into their frail bodies, there is no denying that gadgets cannot replace the human touch.

The longing for their children’s tight embrace and the sound of baby feet padding through their empty homes is leading to many depressed seniors. According to a study by The Internet Journal of Geriatrics and Gerontology, depression was found to be three times higher in people without family support.

In developing countries like India, depression is recognized as a serious public health concern. In these countries, research from The Global Burden of Disease, has found that depression is expected to be the single leading cause of Disability-adjusted Life Years by 2020. And by 2050, the worldwide population of persons above 65 years of age is expected to climb from the current 6.9%, to 16.4%. By then, the United Nations has indicated that in India, 21% of the population will be over 60. When that happens, a huge portion of seniors will be living alone.

But children do not forsake their aging parents by choice and, whenever possible, take them along to live with them. The seniors understand their predicament and seek compromise.

Yet, in the past twelve years Ryan has only been home once.

“He seldom comes ashore and when he does return, he goes to Goa where he has built his own photo studio. He intends on settling down in Goa because his business is there. Mccluskiegunj has no job opportunities for a photographer,” reasons Dennis.

Ryan blames circumstance for the distance with his father.

“It’s not that I no longer care about my dad, but my job doesn’t permit me the leisure time to travel back home.” Though Ryan has often asked Dennis to move to Goa, the real estate prices there are beyond his father’s reach.

“Only when I get my own house can I bring him over,” explains Ryan. “Until then, it’s only through phone and email that we converse.”

By Lesley D. Biswas

Silver Inning Foundation ,a NGO working with Elderly promotes Computer and Internet training promotes Senior Citizens: www.silverinnings.com

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