Abandoned by their near and dear ones, a motley group of mentally and physically disabled senior citizens in Delhi stitch together their lives at a special old age home
“Ahmed! Ahmed!” cried Poornima Amma as she beckoned the caregiver to come to her and interrogated him in toothless Tamil. The caregiver, whose name is not Ahmed, said, “She calls everyone by the names of her children and grandchildren. She thinks I’m her son and was asking me why I deserted her. In the past seven years that she has been here, no one has ever come for her. ”
In the narrow cobbled streets of Badarpur in the Capital is Guru Vishram Vridh Ashram, a shelter for mentally and physically disabled senior citizens, most of whom have been abandoned by their families. Poornima Amma has taken sanctuary here since 2006, after being rescued off the streets, since her family deserted her. She likes eating biscuits and speaks only Tamil. Just as soon as she was about call out to “Ahmed” once again, she is distracted by another caregiver who is carrying a pack of biscuits and calls for them.
Like most other inmates, she sits on her bed all day and has to be assisted in carrying out daily functions like bathing, eating and cleaning. The home has a dedicated mini-brigade of 30 caregivers, all of whom are assigned different tasks like cooking, cleaning, bathing, feeding food and medicines to the residents. But it is still short of staff as there is no one to care for the inhabitants at night.
Bhushan ‘Pandit’, a frail old man at the home, greets everyone with his hands joined together in a namaste and a toothy grin. Obviously a god fearing man, he talks about spiritualism with other inhabitants, caregivers and the occasional visitors. His optimism is palpable and luckily enough, he doesn’t remember that he has a family which abandoned him.
Started in November 2003, the home has provided shelter to over 1,000 destitute and abandoned senior citizens, out of which about 400 have been rehabilitated with their families. Many inhabitants suffer from advanced stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease or depression.
According to Dr. G.P. Bhagat, the founder of the home, rehabilitation with families only happens in the case of ‘wanderers’. He explains that it is quite common for someone with dementia to go out for a routine morning walk, or routine visit to the store, and forget to return home. In such cases, when their children come looking for the parents, they are reunited with them here.
A bitter sweet atmosphere prevails in the shelter as the 150-odd inhabitants have found a chance at a second life and live together in a small community, exchanging jokes, conversing with one another. However, some can be found staring listlessly into emptiness, still hoping for their children to rescue them. Khyati Begum, who was rescued by the police near the railway tracks of Tilak Bridge in Delhi, eyes everyone with suspicion and addresses people either as “Ram” or “Rahim”.
Hussain, who is known for his cheerful demeanour, is now unable to get up and converse with the others; however, his companions are optimistic that he will recover and share space with them again.
Unlike other countries, the practice of ‘adopting’ a senior citizen is still nascent and unorganised in India. “The occasional visitors to the home are residents from around the city who come to celebrate their birthdays or a festival, but rarely is a visitor a relative of the inhabitants. The home does not have any volunteer and all caregivers, the daily visiting doctor, physiotherapist and nurses are employees. There is compulsory physiotherapy for everyone including the ones who are completely bed-ridden. They are fed nutritious food and given R.O. water for consumption. All services provided here are free of cost,” says the staff.
Despite aid from a few philanthropists and corporates, the organisation remains in a perpetual state of financial crunch and does not receive any help from the government. Moreover, it has been unable to find volunteer doctors to provide expert care for dementia, depression or Alzheimer’s. However, the home has equipped itself to provide care for lesser complicated ailments. For instance, Shakuntala Amma, who was rescued in a maggot infested state and blind with cataract, is always seen with a book in hand after a simple surgery.
“We receive a lot of help from the Delhi Police and the senior citizen helpline in reporting the homeless old. After they have informed us, we have a pick-up facility to bring them here,” said Dr. Bhagat. The oncoming winter has put the staff on high alert. They emphatically urge people to report any homeless old either to the senior citizen helpline (1291) or at the home’s helpline number (09953750017).
(The names of some residents have been changed to respect their wish for anonymity)