Shipra Mukherjee was the perfect homemaker. She loved playing host to her family of four sons, daughters-in-law and two grandchildren. But she is 72 now and finds the task extremely daunting.
"My sons stay away from home with their families, but they all descend here during vacations, taking it for granted that I will tend to them as always. It’s as though they have no realisation how age has taken its toll. None of my daughters-in-law lift a hand to help me around the house," she says.
Shipra tolerates the exhaustion because the visits by her children alleviate the loneliness that marks her life and that of her 76-year-old husband, Subhankar, for the rest of the year. Subhankar has hypertension and diabetes and Shipra is his sole caregiver.
Subhankar’s pension is sufficient for the couple’s day-to-day expenses, but they cannot afford full-time domestic help or a medical care-giver.
"My children turn a blind eye to our old age handicaps. Their attitude is that we have our own home, a pension, so what else is required. The increasing cost of living, rising medical expenses, the shrinking rate of interest for bank deposits where we have parked our retirement funds, the tough job of home maintenance, and so on, do not seem to concern them at all," rues Shipra.
For an alarming number of India’s 91 million population who are 60 Plus, neglect, loneliness, mental and physical abuse, depression and lack of proper medical care, are turning the dusk of their life into a living nightmare. As women generally have longer life spans than men, they account for slightly more than half of the older population and represent nearly two-thirds of the population who are over 85.
There has been a steep rise in suicides by the elderly in India as depression, disease and the lack of care induces a sense of helplessness. The situation is several times worse for those who are not financially secure. Adding to feelings of insecurity is the rising incidents of crime against the elderly. Their isolated lifestyles make them sitting ducks for anti-social elements.
In such a scenario, helplines for the elderly - Pronam: 033-24190740/Dignity Foundation: 033-30690999 - have emerged as a lifeline. Often they are the only support senior citizens have in teeming metropolises like Kolkata.
"They provide comfort and give us the chance to mingle with those of our own age. The helplines also conduct financial and psychological counselling, guide us to lead a secure and safe existence and provide us with access to medical care," says Subha Haldar, 66, a widow living alone in South Kolkata.
Over 6 per cent of India’s poor comprise older people. Health care, shelter, food, psychological counselling and affordable insurance are important measures of support for this group.
The Dignity Foundation, which runs a helpline for the elderly in cities like Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Chennai, has 15,000 registered members in Kolkata alone. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Abhijit Ghosh, General Manager, Dignity Foundation. There are over 5,00,000 elderly in the city and most of them are living alone.
Their children often move abroad or to other cities in search of work. Many of the elderly have lost their spouses. The circle of friends and relatives also become smaller as disease and death take their toll, says Ghosh.
For Parvin Sherif, an elderly woman living in South Kolkata, the routine ‘chai adda’ sessions at Dignity are an opportunity to share a cup of tea and snacks with others of her age, sing songs, exchange gossip, play games and share problems.
"The whole experience is cathartic and prevents us from slipping into depression caused by loneliness," says Sherif. The Dignity Foundation currently holds ‘adda’ sessions for senior citizens at three centres in Kolkata but hopes to gradually extend the venture to every locality in the city.
Debolina Shah, who is also over 60, points out that the elderly often withdraw into a shell and suffer in silence when faced with neglect at home. "The women suffer more as in most cases they are financially dependent on their partners or children. They are sometimes physically and mentally abused and made to work as servants despite their advancing age," she says.
Under these circumstances, the best thing to do is to smile and join a support group through helplines. "By becoming part of a group outside the home, the elderly find a healthy and safe outlet for their need to socialise and express themselves," say Ranjana Roy, 60, who has just signed up as a new member at one of Dignity Foundation’s Kolkata centres.
The physical and emotional abuse of the elderly has been of growing concern for the NGOs working in this sector. Pronam, a group providing security and safety to the senior citizens in collaboration with Kolkata Police, has 1,453 registered members, among whom 681 stay alone.
Pronam gives its members access to medical care and has ties with 31 hospitals. The NGO also has contacts with 48 police stations to reach immediate security to those who call in for such security. Often it is protection from their own relatives, according to Shukla Tarafdar, Administrator, Pronam.
Property disputes and financial concerns are the main causes for elders’ abuse, with younger members of the family perceiving them as burdens. The helplines promise senior citizens seeking help absolute confidentiality and carry out social interventions to solve their problem, according to Ghosh. A survey conducted by Silver Innings Foundation and Society for Serving Seniors - Silver Innings Foundation is a Mumbai-based initiative for the elderly - in March this year lists fast track courts, old-age pension, a separate medicare policy, and a national level helpline as the top requirements for the elderly.
Lack of company is another great problem. "Besides intervention by NGOs, a community-level commitment to help the elderly couple or the single old man or woman living in the locality is necessary, to make them feel part of society and cared for," observes Manjushree Basu, 63.
Manjushree lives with her 67-year-old husband, Pralay, who suffers from chronic arthritis. Their only son lives abroad and visits just once a year. The couple could really do with some help to go to the doctor, visit a library or do some shopping.
"It’s often thought that money can solve problems. But for the elderly, money is just one of the problems. Even if there is money, without help and support we cannot live. Old age is like another childhood, where a caregiver is a must," says Pralay.
According to projections, India will have an elderly population of 179 million by 2031 and 301 million by 2051, with 51 per cent of them women. With the decline of traditional support structures, like joint families, the country urgently needs to ensure that the rights of this neglected section are protected, and their needs addressed.
By Ajitha Menon
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