..and this is how some Indians care for the elderly

Posted: October 19, 2013 in Senior citizens
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In the days when my mother, unknown to her and to the rest of us, lived through dementia, otherwise known as Alzheimer’s disease,  she once got off at Raja ki Mandi station in UP, telling the station master that she was meeting a friend. She sat on a bench bare feet, waiting for the ‘friend’, as the train left without her.  It was around 2 am and had an alert station master not realised something amiss, she might have wandered off into the night and we might never have found her. She was 86 then, suffering not just from dementia, but near blindness and severe arthritis in both knees. And had that incident not happened none of us would have ever known that she was dying of the disease.

That memory was triggered off the other day, when I went to Maher’s Vatsalyadham which houses mentally challenged & destitute women and children. We went there to observe the first death anniversary of my aunt who had passed away on October 17, last year. She, of course, was completely lucid till the day she passed away, and because she didn’t want the usual religious practices followed after her death, we thought, we could mark her first death anniversary by visiting a Home for the elderly, where we could donate clothes, food and money (the last only if they would accept).

We met a woman who held my wife’s hand and told her that she wanted to return home. She said a lot of other incoherent things, which made it clear that she was having a few problems. The sisters there told us she had picked been picked up by them from near the railway station and could not give coherent answers to her previous whereabouts.

Another elderly woman was found lying at a bus stop. Whether she was mentally challenged or suffering from dementia is unclear, but when some kindly souls landed up at the spot, there she was shivering, muttering incoherently. She was then gently carried to a van and brought to Vatsalyadham.

After she had been nursed back to much better health, the volunteers traced her family. When they reached the woman’s home they were shocked to find her garlanded photograph on the wall. They were even more shocked when they heard that the family had declared her dead, because they didn’t want her anymore. Surprisingly, this was not a poor family, but an upper middle class one.

Sister Monica, who looks after Vatsalyadham, when Sister Lucy (who heads the Maher Group), is travelling to raise funds, says there are dozens of women, and even teenage girls there with heartrending tales about their lives. Maher was started by Sister Lucy, who always wanted to do something for the elderly women she would find sleeping on the roadside or on shop verandahs. She was already picking up mentally challenged women from the streets and housing them. With the help of donors and friends, she set up Vatsalyadham in 2004.

Sister Monica told us that they have 60 elderly women and just 33 beds. “The others have to make do with a bed sheet on the floor.”

There are countless other women who are now inmates of Vatsalyadham. They share the premises with teenage expectant mothers, who had either run away from their homes or have been abandoned by their families. Others had been beaten up and thrown out of their homes by their children. Not all women who live here are mentally challenged. Some have been abandoned by their husbands, and now live and work here. Some even reveal their names after medical treatment, but their families refuse to take them back.

“One of the women we found near a bus stop, had open sores, infested with maggots and lice. We brought here and she is being treated,” says Sister Monica. Sometimes they get calls from strangers telling them that there is some woman lying somewhere and they rush off in their van to locate her.

There are almost a hundred children living here in two separate rooms. They are either orphans who were taken in from the streets or are children of mentally challenged women living in Vatsalyadham. We met one such tot, who just sat and stared sullenly into space. Even as we ruffled his hair, he stared back expressionless.

For all the help that Sister Lucy brings in, it is never enough. The numbers of destitute women and children at this particular Home is increasing, but the facilities that need to be replenished are not always readily available, even with the funding they get.

But the most horrifying story we heard that day, was about a caller who told them about a woman lying on the street. When they reached the spot they found another woman waiting there, with the woman who was lying on the ground. They brought the sick woman back to the Home and nursed her. Once she was well enough they asked her about her family, and were stunned to hear that the woman who had made the call and waited with her was her granddaughter, who had thrown her out of their home.

This is the condition of the elderly in a State that has a law, which secures the lives of senior citizens, many of whom are abandoned by their families to die on the streets. Not all of them are as lucky to be taken to Homes run by NGOs, like Maher.

For all that they have done for their children, the least the elderly deserve is the security of a home and family, until the final journey on the shoulders of their loved ones. Can we not guarantee them that?

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