An alarming number of India's ninety one million sixty-plus population is suffering from loneliness, neglect, depression, physical and mental abuse and a plethora of diseases without proper medical care.
Often enough, the senior citizens' help lines are the only support the old people have in teeming metropolises like Kolkata.
The Dignity Foundation, which runs a help line for seniors in cities like Pune, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Chennai, has 15000 registered members in Kolkata alone. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Mr Abhijit Ghosh. There are over five lakh elderly persons in the city and most of them are living alone. The children often move abroad or to other cities in search of work. Many of the elderly have lost their spouses. Their friends and relatives circles also narrow down as disease and death take their toll, says Ghosh.
There has been a spurt in suicides by the elderly as increased loneliness, depression, disease and lack of care induces a sense of helplessness amongst them. Help lines have emerged as life saviours in such a scenario as they provide much- needed comfort to the old along with an opportunity to mix with others of their own age, psychological and financial counseling, safety and security and support for getting access to medical care.
According to Parvin Sherif, a senior citizen living in South Kolkata the regular 'chai adda' sessions at Dignity Foundation gives the old people an opportunity to share of cup of tea and snacks with others of their own age group, exchange gossip, sing songs, play games and share problems. The whole experience is cathartic and prevents us from slipping into depression caused often by loneliness, she adds.
At present Dignity Foundation holds 'adda' sessions for the aged at three centres in Kolkata but hopes to extend this venture to every area and locality gradually.
Another 60-plus, Rekha Shah points out that when faced with neglect at home, the elderly often withdraw into a shell and suffer in silence. The best thing to do is to smile even in the face of apathy from near and dear ones and join a support group through the help lines to find like-minded friends of one's own age. By becoming part of a group outside the house, the elderly often find an healthy outlet for their suppressed emotions and desires, she says.
Emotional and physical abuse of the elderly have been a matter of growing concern for the NGOs working in this sector. Pronam, an NGO which provides safety and security to the senior citizens in collaboration with Kolkata Police, has 1453 registered members of whom 681 stay alone. Pronam gives its members access to medical care and has ties with 31 hospitals for providing health care to senior citizens. The NGO also has contacts with 48 police stations to reach immediate security to the needy elderly on the other end of the phone, often seeking protection from their own flesh and blood, according to Shukla Tarafdar, Administrator, Pronam.
Property disputes and financial concerns are the main causes of abuse of the elderly, with the youth often perceiving them as a burden. The help lines promise the senior citizens seeking help absolute confidentiality and carry out social intervention to solve the problem, according to Mr Ghosh. There is need to create awareness amongst the suffering elderly population that help lines and support groups exist for their benefit and they should be counselled to seek help when required, according to Shukla Tarafdar.
For the aged, its problems like lack of company, help to visit the doctor, library or the nearby grocery store, that becomes insurmountable. Besides intervention by NGOs, a community-level commitment to help the elderly couple or single old man or lady living in the locality is necessary to make them feel part of society and cared for.
The Help Line Numbers in Kolkata are : Dignity Foundation (033-30690999) and Pronam (033-24190740) By Ajitha Menon