Her work with the elderly is note-worthy. Sheilu Sreenivasan's initiatives, which ensure the old are safe and provided for, are commendable.

With the 21st century having been designated the century of elderly persons, (the 22nd century incidentally will be the century of the “ageing of the aged”) and population ageing, being one of the most important global trends of our times, the efforts of social change makers like Dr. Sheilu Sreenivasan, founder president, Dignity Foundation and Dignity Lifestyle Retirement Township, to help the elderly lead fulfilling and productive lives, pursue rewarding second careers, while not compromising on their independence or dignity, assume great significance and import.

Says Sheilu Sreenivasan, “The sharp rise in human life expectancy over the years has resulted not only in a very substantial increase in the number of older persons but in a major shift in the age groups of 80 and above. The demographic profile depicts that in the years 2000-2050, the overall population in India will grow by 55 per cent whereas population of people in the age bracket 60 years and above will increase by 326 per cent and those in the age group of 80 plus by 700 per cent — the fastest growing group. Incidentally 1/8th of the World's Elderly Population lives in India.”

While the numbers are staggering, the problems are equally wide ranging. Listing out the many challenges faced, Sheilu Sreenivasan adds, “As a result of the current ageing scenario, there is a need for all aspects of care for the Oldest Old (80 plus years) namely, socio economic, financial, health and shelter. Problems in any of these areas have an impact on the quality of life in old age. Most elders will never retire in the usual sense of the term and will continue to work and earn as long as physically possible. The ability to do so will inevitably decline with age and the concomitant absence of savings and financial insecurity will result in a sharp fall in living standards that for many can mean destitution in the evening of their lives. The increase in life span also results in chronic functional disabilities, creating a need for assistance required by the Oldest Old to manage simple, day-to-day chores.”

Pointing to the urgent need for the Government to step up efforts for any perceptible change, Sheilu says, “Today the 97 million people in India in the 60 plus age bracket continue to be ignored by the Government by and large, though lip service is being paid both at the Central and State levels. Policies are being announced, and or being contemplated, probably even in good faith. But until and unless implemented at the State level, people are not going to experience any change in the quality of life after retirement. For example, mid-day meals for BPL elderly are a necessity, but how leak-proof a system can we evolve, so rations are not siphoned off by the middlemen. Healthcare and shelter are the other main need areas for the BPL majority who number 60 million. For the middle income retirees, jobs and opportunities for productive occupation, at least till one is 70 or 75 years old, robust health insurance schemes, recreational spaces for daily interaction and networking are the areas of vital importance. NGOs can only do so much. But much of their work has to be advocacy-based to push both the business and government sectors to service the elderly segment.”

Compassionate and empathetic, Sheilu was given to speaking her mind fearlessly and protesting against discrimination and cruelty of any kind to any being — animal or human — even as a child. Among the people who inspired her early on were the nuns in her convent school.

Her taking to the cause of the elderly was more of an accident. “While I was working at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, I had elders walking into my department, most of them rather depressed, weighed and bent down with the “burden of ageing”! Disenchanted with university restraints on creativity and implementing practical solutions in the field, I started looking out for alternatives at work. It occurred to me that this is a niche area no one was working for. But for my academic training in Social Work with Psychiatric specialisation, (she holds a Doctorate in Sociology) I would never have been able to situate ageing in the context of human development and social structure. That enabled me to facilitate adoption of newer practices in a field where there is no precedent. Social work is after all about rendering help to people.”

Her publishing background (which includes a seven-year stint as Corporate Manager Macmillan India, besides rich experience gained as the Head of Publishing Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai and the study of university publishing with Simon and Schuster England) gave her a head-start and she went about the launch of a “voice box” for senior citizens — the magazine Dignity Dialogue in 1995 — the first initiative of Dignity Foundation (headquartered in Mumbai). “That turned out to be a boon, as it served to spark off a meaningful dialogue on the meaning and purpose of life after retirement. I was under the impression that the publication of this magazine was going to be my sole career. Little did I realise that Dignity Dialogue was going to open the floodgates. Four months after I released the first issue, senior citizens in hundreds responded and highlighted the need for a variety of services. One by one, Dignity Foundation came up with a battery of services that now numbers 24.”

From Dignity second careers to Dignity Dementia care to Security with Dignity, a network of protection to elders who live alone, to Dignity Enrichment Centre to Dignity on Wheels (transport for elder poor in Mumbai) to Dignity Helpline (support for victims of elder abuse) and Loneliness Mitigation project to Dignity Homes and Lifestyle townships, Dignity Foundation came up with solutions to many of the problems faced by elders.

Quick to realise that cases of elder abuse were on the rise in Mumbai, Sheilu also launched the much-needed Dignity Helpline. As if to corroborate her findings there was a spate of crimes against elders in the metro. Today Dignity Foundation has help lines in five cities Chennai, Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai and Kolkata to prevent elder abuse and about 300 cases are handled every month. Besides immediate rescue and protection from physical violence, assistance during medical emergencies and in the face of personal threats, easy access to police and lawyers to mediate and arrive at out-of-court settlements and other experts who offer psychological and emotional support, help to address this issue.

Does the younger generation need to be sensitised to the problems and feelings of the elderly? “The majority of the young do care. It is only the lack of time at their disposal that is the villain of the aching stories of the elderly. Also today our educational curriculum no longer includes simple ‘moral' education classes, wherein values such as respect and concern for the elderly are imparted to children. With lifestyles changing totally and the disappearance of the joint family many children do not spend any quality time with their grandparents.” Holidays are now at exotic locations with parents and not to the villages or small towns where grand parents live. I don't see any possibility for change in this area. Things will only become more distant between children and parents. To most secure senior citizens lack of children's attention and care is at the root of depression which gets exacerbated with illness and physical impairments. Property issues surely and crudely do raise their ugly head, and the richer the family the deeper the animosity, and expectation for the transfer of property in the children's names,” observes Sheilu.

Ask her for her take on homes for the elderly and her answer is crystal clear.

Homes for the aged

“Retirement homes are the need of the day and secure havens for those who can afford them. Not all are expensive from the point of middle income retirees who are better off in a retirement home rather than fending for themselves in their own homes. In old age one yearns for the dignity and self-esteem that comes from holding one's head high, independent of the children. The negative imagery about ashrams for destitute widows and the dying has given way to independent living without dependence on a city's inadequate elder-friendly infrastructure — whether it is transportation, geriatric wards, trustworthy medical and legal professionals, domestic help etc. No longer can parents hang on to traditional values of children being responsible for taking care of the aged. This is a social reality that has to be accepted.” Homes for the lower income retirees are a challenge I have given unto myself. After the success of Dignity Lifestyle Retirement Township for the better off, it is now my mission to establish workable models for lower income retirees.”

What would Sheilu like to say going forward?

“NGOs like Dignity Foundation have to engage themselves in advocacy work. They should serve as unofficial think tanks for the Government to usher in social change. Even if there are hundreds of us working for the cause of this most neglected segment, it will not suffice. We have to move the Government. Innovation is at our command, not the Government's. The onus of creative strategies to change the quality of life for the 97 million people who are 60 plus is solely on us as civil society. We have the experience of working at the grassroots; not the Government. Harnessing the wisdom and energies of retired population is a challenge that we have to address in the coming years ahead, when India will no longer have the demographic (youth) dividend.”

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012