Depending on neighbours and volunteers for daily needs and connecting with family through technology is the new, difficult normal for those in their sunset years; but fighting loneliness and isolation is their bigger battle, besides the lethality of the virus
CHENNAI: Hello, Hello, who’s calling? Yedhume kekale (I can’t hear a thing). Raaji! can you find out wh o ’s calling?”. The raspy yet friendly voice of 70-year-old Varalakshmi Chandrasekar travels through the phone. Soon, we hear another voice, a young one. After exchanging pleasantries, Rajeshwari (Raaji), says, “Paati has a mild hearing impairment.
Can you speak louder? She has been wanting to talk to someone new for the last couple of weeks. She’ll be happy to talk to you.” After her husband’s passing in 2018, Varalakshmi has been living by herself at her two-storey house in Velachery. “A few days before the lockdown was announced, I came here to be with paati. My parents live in Bengaluru and I stay at a PG in Guindy,” says the engineering student.
Burden of favour
For Varalakshmi, a retired teacher, the lockdown has pressed pause on her hopes of living a life that doesn’t have her taking help from others. From buying groceries, washing her clothes and replacing bulbs to pruning the garden — she has always lived a self-sufficient life. “Now, because of the lockdown, I have to depend on someone to even get groceries and medicines. I am a people person — I talk to all the vendors in the market, go for an evening stroll and visit the nearby park to meet new people. Now all I do is eat, sleep and read books.
The only physical activity I do is climb up and down the stairs of my house. My granddaughter is here to help me. But there’s only so much we can do together. I get nightmares every second day. Raaji says it could be anxiety. But what is anxiety? I’ve never had it in my life!” says the septuagenarian in a fretful tone. According to a case study on COVID- 19 by JAMA, a peer-reviewed journal, the worst affected are senior citizens. The study projected that in countries like India and Iran, the senior citizens were at high risk and twice as likely to contract the coronavirus, primarily due to weaker immune systems. The potential danger of the virus, the fear of community spread and the lockdown has rendered a sense of helplessness in those in their silver years, leaving them in search of solutions.
Mohammed Ibrahim, a 65-year-old from Tiruvottiyur, works as a daily wage labourer in and around north Chennai. For the sexagenarian, not being able to earn his own bread and butter has caused emotional turmoil. While several NGOs have lent a helping hand for senior citizens like Ibrahim by providing provisions and other essentials, for him, the despair is beyond all reason. “I have been working for 55 years.
Never in my life have I taken anything for free. From working in the railway station as a porter, selling fruits and vegetables to working in construction sites, I have done everything. Kai kaal iruku, ilavasama udhavi edhuku? (I have hands and legs to work. Why do I need help?) The people who came to give rations said that by going out I will not only put myself at risk but will also affect others around me. I don’t care about my health...but there are children near my house. That’s made me stay put. I don’t have any companions...work has kept me going all these years. I don’t know what to do now,” he says.
While difficulties in safely procuring provisions and medicines have become a cause of concern for the elderly, it is the lack of access to healthcare which remains a primary challenge, especially for those living with chronic ailments. With little to no knowledge about teleconsultations, several, who have had doctor consultations and hospital visits scheduled have resorted to skipping it in the fear of contracting the virus. “We heard from a neighbour that patients who don’t have any ‘emergencies’ are being sent home. Everyone is talking about teleconsultations.
But I don’t know how to access it. My husband has orthopaedic issues and I haven’t been able to get in touch with the doctor who usually treats him. My son and daughter live in the US and they’re now trying to schedule an online appointment with a doctor for him. For people like us who are not tech-savvy, it is a tough time,” says Jayanthi Palaniappan, a 67-year-old from Ramapuram. The situation is only worse for those who don’t have the knowledge and resources; need dialysis or have to visit the hospital for chemotherapy. “My father has a few more chemo sessions left.
We take the utmost precaution while going and coming back to the hospital. Chemo harms one’s immunity system...so coupled with his age, this only increases his risk of catching the virus and other infections. It worries me to expose him to a hospital-setting. But we don’t have a choice,” says Shyamsundar, an IT professional whose father was diagnosed with lung cancer in January.
Together yet alone
PS Sundaram, an 88-year-old’s views seem to resonate with what many his age have been experiencing. Although the lockdown hasn’t affected his routine — of reading religious texts in the morning and evening, reading the newspaper and books, and taking an afternoon nap — it has certainly provided a crevice for loneliness to creep in. “Since I live with my family, I don’t have to go out to get provisions or medicines. But I do feel isolated. I don’t have anyone in my age group to interact with. Since I can’t go out or come in contact with anyone, I have been feeling quite lonely,” he shares.
Stuck with support
The lethality of the virus has had senior citizens social distance themselves from the outside world. But for Hyderabad-based couple Colonel (Retired) SL Reddy, a 78-year-old, and his wife Indira Reddy, a self-imposed social distancing began much earlier. The duo who drove down to Gandipet last month to spend some quality time and unwind at their summer house, have not been able to go back home owing to the lockdown. “We had come here for a couple of days and that’s when the lockdown was announced. So, we couldn’t go back to Hyderabad town.
But luckily, we have two house helps to take care of our needs. They live within the housing complex. We are aware that we are better off than so many others of our age. But to be away from home is still a challenge,” he shares. Reddy and his wife spend time playing cards, going for a walk along the perimeter of the house and watching movies. A remote yet strong support system is what has kept the duo in high spirits. “My sonin- law taught me to connect my computer with my cell phone’s Internet. So I can access Zoom and get in touch with my family. They are the ones helping us tide through the situation. But we miss everyone. We wish we could be with our children and grandchildren,” says Reddy.
In the case of 82-year-old Sridhar Ganesh and 75-year-old Aruna Sridhar, the lockdown has paved way for them to renew their faith and love in their relationship, add new values to their bond and create new memories. He washes the vessels, she stacks them. He sweeps, she cleans the shelves. He chops the vegetables, she cooks. Aruna and Sridhar have made a friendly pact to share household chores like never before since the lockdown was announced. “Both of us have ailments. He’s diabetic and I have arthritis. We take several breaks but complete the work.
While both our sons — the elder one in Mumbai and the younger one in Coimbatore — thought we’d go nuts, I think we’ve proved them wrong. In case there’s an emergency then our neighbours help us. That way, we’re blessed,” says Aruna, a retired government teacher. The duo, residents of Aminjikarai, have been living away from their children for the past 11 years. While their children insisted on picking them up before the lockdown, the couple insisted on staying alone and handling things their way. “Sridhar was not of much help with housework when he was in service as a railway advocate. He didn’t change much even post-retirement. Looks like the lockdown has brought changes in him for the good!” says Aruna. The couple has a set time to unwind.
Both of them enjoy watching old films, listening to Ilaiyaraaja songs, playing cards and reading books. “There are days when we feel low but expressing thoughts and communicating effectively helps us overcome anything,” says Sridhar. While they maybe on the sunnier side of the situation, they understand what others might be going through and ensure to lend a ear and a shoulder for those in need. “Some of our friends are having a tough time battling loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Aruna and I take turns and talk to them every day,” he says. As a piece of advice for others who might be isolated and away from their loved ones during such a trying time, Sridhar says, “Age is just a number. Do what you like, keep yourself busy, be there for each other. This has helped us age gracefully and shaped our relationship dynamics.”
Alserv, a tech start-up, providing assisted living services has been helping senior citizens stay safe and positive during the lockdown. Jagadish Ramamoorthy, founder of Alserv says, “We have partnered with verified vendors across Chennai to ease the burden of lockdown on the senior citizens. We have been seeing a five-time increase in traffic on our platform as more and more seniors want to use the available services, especially healthcare. Many who live alone use our services to just talk to our volunteers and have something as simple as a conversation with them.”
FACILITIES PROVIDED DURING LOCKDOWN
Home-cooked meals: Delivering home-cooked meals through verified service providers. Medical assistance: Partnered with 12 healthcare companies to help seniors with medical needs, including medicine delivery, doctor consultations, and nurse and attender on-call
Grocery delivery: Bringing groceries free of charge with the comfort of ordering over the phone and through the Alserv app. For details, visit: Alserv.in or call 46664888. Alserv app is available for Android and iOS.
(With inputs from Vaishali Vijaykumar)