On any other day, it would have been easy to spot ‘grandma’ Queen Elizabeth and ‘grandpa’ Prince Philip in a crowd.

But, not on Monday. Josephine Binny and Rayman Rodrigues, dressed as royalty, were part of a 600-strong group, all over 60 years of age, gathered at Kuchalambal Kalyana Mandapam.

They marked International Day of Older Persons by breathing life into heroes from the past, such as Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Subramanya Bharathi, at a programme organised by HelpAge India.

The buoyant grandma Queen Elizabeth, who lost her husband a few months ago, described herself a ‘lonely woman’ as if delivering a dialogue from her upcoming performance just like 70-year-old Kaniamma whose remaining teeth were yellow as gold. Her married children pay little attention to her, she said rhetorically.

The stories of others present at the event were not too different, their web of woes spun together by common concerns such as isolation, housing constraints, and expenditure on health.

With a growing number of elderly persons in the country, support systems, too, have to be strengthened, said P.R. Anbazhakan, director, HelpAge India. And Chennai specifically, he said, lacks in sufficient number of trained caregivers for the elderly.

“Another recent phenomenon is elderly people, especially those living alone, becoming the target of crimes such as thefts and attacks for gains. Close to 90 per cent of the elderly belong to the unorganised sector and receive meagre or no pensions.”

While these may be the tangible difficulties that many elderly persons deal with on a day-to-day basis, there are also psychological impacts like dealing with isolation. Even those who live with their families are not provided enough care and attention, he said.

Shrimathi Narayanan, a class XI student of Bhaktavatsalam Vidyashram, who along with her classmates volunteered at the event, confessed that though she lived with her grandparents, she seldom spent time with them.

“It never struck us what they must be going through,” she said.

Vijaylakshmi T., teacher at Lady Sivaswamy Iyer Girls Higher Secondary School, said reluctant students turned into willing caregivers at the end of their seven-day stay at an old age home in Palavakkam.

Indrani Rajadurai, special adviser, HelpAge India, said, sensitisation, which is a natural process, has to begin young rather. “While students must be sensitised at a very young age about how to respect and learn from the elderly in the families, middle-aged people must start planning early for their retirement,” she said, adding that women, especially widows face greater challenges because of social exclusion.

M. Dayalasankar, director, Mudhir Solai Trust, who marked the day with a dance programme at M.G.R. Colony in Anna Nagar, where they have been working for over a decade, echoed a similar view. Most in the community belong to economically-weaker sections and depend on old-age pension, he said. “We encouraged grandparents and grandchildren to perform together because we wanted to build bonds,” he said.

Talking about how healthy ageing would drastically reduce medical expenditure, which eats away a chunk of their finances, Ms. Indrani said, “Most elderly are burdened by ailments such as diabetes and heart conditions, and are forced to spend heavily on medicines and treatment. We categorise the elderly into assisted, independent and active elders, and urge everyone to slot themselves in the latter two.”

Despite this, Mohamed Bilal, district manager, 108 emergency ambulance service, said only two per cent of those who use the service are elderly persons, and cites the lack of awareness as reason. The elders helpline, 1253, said Ms. Indrani, receives anywhere between 15 to 20 calls a day and most pertain to shelter assistance. HelpAge India also organised a walkathon on Monday morning at Marina Beach to create awareness about healthy ageing.

The elderly, said Ms. Indrani, should be treated as knowledge banks. They are giants in your own house, who are dwarfed only by their failing vision, she said.

In another event to mark the day, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, released the book, Probus way to dignified ageing, compiled by the Probus Club of Chennai. Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Kulandei Francis was conferred the Probus Award of Excellence on the occasion.

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