Elders starving for love, not shelter

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A few years ago, E.A. Abraham (now 81), wanted to enrol in a local college in Mumbai to learn Sanskrit. He was denied admission everywhere due to his age. He therefore took to working for a Ph.D degree in Bombay University because that was the only possibility.

He successfully obtained a degree in Sanskrit when he was 75. As Sheilu Sreenivasan of Dignity Foundation put it aptly in a recent article online, "a person who stops solving problems arrives at a point where he cannot solve problems."Old age, as opposed to the popular sentiment of being burdensome, is a time to discover passions, emphasised Sheilu.

This World Elders Day, we celebrate the wealth of energy, experience and passion that today's elders display.

As American writer Betty Friedan lucidly put it — "Ageing is not 'lost youth' but a new stage of opportunity and strength." Senior citizens today no longer complain about age confining them to a small circle. Post retirement has come to mean a time to make the most of life.

Gone are the days when children who considered their parents a burden came and dumped them unceremoniously in old age homes. The new age is one where senior citizens themselves prefer staying at retirement homes which have also undergone a huge makeover over time. The reasons for this change are many - safety, a need for privacy, and in some cases, just an act that preserves one's dignity when children no longer want their parents around.

Vishranthi, a popular home for the aged and destitute women in Chennai, does not have one dull moment. The elderly women here flash enthusiastic smiles and go about their daily activities in an environment that reminds them of a home that spells comfort and love. In sprawling premises situated very close to the beach at Palavakkam, Vishranthi has close to 200 inmates and is run by Savithri Vaithi, who herself turns 82 on World Elders Day!

“We are very excited! All the dolls needed for Navarathri decorations should be brought out and dusted," smiles Kannamma, a 78-year-old inmate.

Admissions at Vishranthi are free. Once the elder person walks in through the doors, they stay there until their last days, around friends who gradually turn into their family. Lakshmi Paati, who turned 96 years last week, reminisces fondly of her 'youth' and says that Vishranthi is her home and every inmate in it, her family for the last two years. “Only four more years to go. I will accomplish a century," she smiles gleefully.

While homes like Vishranthi take in people for free, there are alternate options like Clasic Kudumbam that provides an elegant and luxurious option to seniors who wish to enjoy a comfortable retired life. “We are here because safety is our priority," endorse a couple who reside at Clasic Kudumbam.

Age just a number: Vishranthi chief

Savithri Vaithi, chairperson of Vishranthi, comes off as a remarkable personality. She is 82 and still the person who has been changing lives of hundreds of senior citizens like her. Speaking to Deccan Chronicle on Elders Day, she says, “Age is just a number” and it can’t stop one from doing what they love.

Vishranthi was started 37 years ago with just one inmate and today it is home to almost 200 women.
“I had no clue about how to run a home like this three decades ago, but now, I know the place and the people in it,” Ms Vaithi says with a smile.

She manages the place with 32 staff members. Savithri was one of the first women who brought about a change in society by bravely taking up the cremation responsibilities of women who passed away after joining the home.

“Old age is the time to be happy as one can finally kick off the shoes and relax. So at Vishranthi we try our best to give our inmates the peace and calm that they crave for," she said.

Imparting a nugget of wisdom to today's generation, Savithri says “Young generation think that by providing food, clothes and shelter to their parents, their duty is complete towards elders.
“The most important thing is they want our attention, care and time. It is vital to remember that.”

Denial of healthcare a crime

You see them walking grandchildren to school, hawking flowers on the roadside, pushing loaded fishcarts up flyovers, or walking briskly along the Marina.

The elderly population in Chennai, a generation that thrived without fast food, electronic gadgets and other short-cuts to daily chores, has lived long, active lives and seems to be sprightly even in its sunset years.

The wear and tear of old age, however, cannot be avoided - cataracts and hearing loss, arthritis, brittle bones and wheezy hearts - are all part of ageing and need regular medical care - something that a majority of Chennai's elders are deprived of, say geriatric specialists.

Septuagenarian physician, Dr V.S. Natarajan, reports that the most common form of elder abuse is denying them healthcare.

"Most often, old people come to us when the illness is greatly advanced; their children take them to the doctor only as a last resort. When we question them in private, many of them break down and confide that their children did not want to 'waste' money on their medical expenses," explains Dr Natarajan.

He adds, "This attitude is not kept secret even from the doctors; their families openly pester us not to send them for diagnostic tests or prescribe expensive medicines," he adds.

Lack of healthcare policies and protocols to treat the graying population is another deterrent for families to seek medical help.

"Old people tend to have multiple ailments and they are forced to run from one specialist to the other, one clinic to another to address all their health issues. There is no integrated approach to treating elders, and in the entire country of over 130 million senior citizens, there is just one med school out of the 206 colleges in India that offers a course in geriatric medicine -Madras Medical College in Chennai," says Dr Andrew Elder, consultant physician in geriatric medicine at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh.

A frequent visitor to Chennai, Dr Elder urges the community and medical men to change their attitude towards old people.

"A graying population should not be looked upon as a disaster, but a triumph. A country filled with old people has done something right - it has provided the healthcare and economic support that has allowed its population to age. However, they should develop a strategy to tackle the diseases and frailty that sets in with old age in order to make old people a resource and not a burden on resources," he said.

Services for the elderly in Chennai

* Average rental for old age homes varies from Rs 7000 to Rs 15,000. Some of the few homes that render free care to the older people

* John Bosco old age home. Giri Nagar Main road, Ramapuram PH- 9444871179

* Alisha Care homes Defence Colony, St.Thomas Mount; Ph - 9445007755

* Udhavum Ullangal Illam,West Karikalan, 2nd street, Adambakkam; Ph - 9940019962

* R V K home for aged, J block, 19th street Vaigai colony street, Anna Nagar west; Ph - 9841287719

* Aumsss old aged home, Gopala krishnan nagar 2nd street, Korattur; Ph -7299816336

* Vidhya senior citizen home, Babu Rajendra Prasad road, West Mambalam

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