When a helpline becomes a lifeline

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When a helpline becomes a lifeline

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Shipra Mukherjee is the perfect homemaker. She loves playing hostess 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 and their families descend here during the holidays, taking it for granted that I will tend to their needs as always. It’s as though they have no realisation that age has taken its toll on me,” she says.

Shipra battles her exhaustion with a smile because her children’s visit 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 the services of a caregiver. “My children are unaware of certain realities. They think that we have our own home and a pension, and wonder what else we’d require! The increasing cost of living, rising medical expenses, shrinking rate of interest on bank deposits where we have parked our retirement funds, and the tough job of home maintenance do not seem to concern them,” rues Shipra.

An alarming percentage of India’s elderly face neglect, loneliness, mental and physical abuse, depression and lack of proper medical care.

There has been a steep rise in suicides by the elderly as depression, disease and lack of care make them feel helpless and vulnerable. The situation is worse for those who are not financially secure. Compounding their insecurity is the alarming increase in crimes against senior citizens.

In such a scenario, helplines for the elderly, launched by organisations such as Dignity Foundation and Pronam, have emerged as valuable lifelines. Often such helplines are the only support that senior citizens have in a busy and indifferent metropolis.

“A helpline provides comfort and security. It provides us access to psychological counselling and medical assistance,” says Subha Haldar (66), who lives on her own in South Kolkata.

Health care, shelter, food, psychological counselling and affordable insurance are important measures of support for senior citizens.

The Dignity Foundation, which runs a helpline for the elderly in cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad and Chennai, has 15,000 registered members in Kolkata alone.

According to Abhijit Ghosh, General Manager, Dignity Foundation, there are over 5,00,000 senior citizens in Kolkata  and most of them live alone. “Their children have moved out in search of work, and have settled abroad or in other Indian cities. Many of them have lost their spouses and their circle of friends and relatives has shrunk as disease and death take their toll,” he adds.

“They look forward to the ‘chai adda’ sessions at Dignity Foundation, which give them an opportunity to share a cup of tea and snacks with others of their age. The whole experience is cathartic and prevents them from slipping into depression caused by loneliness,” Ghosh says.

Debolina Shah, who is over 60, points out that the elderly often withdraw into a shell and suffer in silence when faced with neglect at home. “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.

In such circumstances, the best thing to do is to 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,” says Ranjana Roy (60), who has just signed up at one of Dignity Foundation’s centres.

The physical and emotional abuse of the elderly has been a matter of growing concern for organisations working in this sector. Pronam, a group which provides security to senior citizens in collaboration with the Kolkata Police, has 1,453 registered members, among whom 681 live alone.

Pronam also gives its members access to medical care through tie-ups with 31 hospitals.  
Property disputes and money are the main causes for abuse of the elderly, with younger members of the family perceiving them as “burdens”. Helplines promise senior citizens, seeking help, absolute confidentiality and carry out social intervention to solve their problems, according to Ghosh.

A survey conducted by Silver Innings Foundation and Society for Serving Seniors in Mumbai, in March this year, lists fast track courts, old age pension, a separate medicare policy and a national helpline as the top requirements for the elderly.

“A community-level commitment to help elderly couples or single old men/ women living in the locality is necessary, to make them feel part of society and cared for,” says Manjushree Basu (63).

Manjushree lives with her 67-year-old husband, Pralay, who suffers from chronic arthritis. Their only son lives abroad and visits them once a year. “We could really do with some help to go to the doctor, visit a library or go shopping,” she says.

“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.

With the decline of traditional support  systems, such as joint families, the country urgently needs to ensure that the rights of senior citizens are protected and their needs, addressed.

WFS

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