Senior citizens no longer confine themselves to home. They pursue hobbies, go on vacations and believe there is no age bar to living and learning

Posing for photos under a forest waterfall...attracting public attention playing riotous games on the beach...learning about delicate winged creatures in a butterfly park and then loafing in shops to their heart’s content.

No, these are not college youth but a group of senior citizens in Kochi for whom this dose of fun and frolic does more good than medicines.

Leaving behind isolation and boredom to ‘stroll’ down Chennai’s crowded Beach Road on a wheelchair or taking a two-day Delhi-Chandigarh trip like other holidaymakers, elders living in old age homes and members of senior citizens’ associations are having different ‘experiences’ offered to them.

The International Day of Older Persons is celebrated on October 1.

With the number of elders over 60 years crossing the 95 million mark in India this year, just 12 other countries have a higher total population. The Five Year Plans, in fact, project there will be 120 million elderly in 2014. As national policies and programmes are formulated to cater to their needs of food, shelter, security and health, age care organisations and professionals working with elders are coming to realise there are other rarely expressed needs which can nourish older people as much as the provision of basic amenities.

Pointing to a change in the country’s demographic and social profile with more elders living on their own, Dr A.B. Dey, Dean Research and Chief of Geriatric Services in AIIMS, says, “We are working with institutions to replicate the social protection and emotional security earlier provided by family and community bonds.” Holiday homes in hill stations, getaways in sylvan surroundings offering ‘bereavement support’, trips to religious and tourist locations and wheelchair and assistive device facilities for elders in public places are recent initiatives getting older people out of the confines of home.

The quaint colonial era Bamloe Cottage in Shimla is one such holiday destination to which an age care organisation brings elders from old age homes all over the country. The all-expenses-paid vacation, enjoying the hill station’s fresh air and the charms of the nearby Mall is therapeutic, vouches Avenash Datta, HelpAge India’s country head (programmes).

Another picturesque location is the Vishokanand Vridh Ashram in Bijnor. Set amidst fruit orchards on the banks of the Ganges, the ashram is the base for busloads of elders visiting Rishikesh, Haridwar and other religious places nearby. For elders who recently lost a dear one, the ashram offers a unique programme to help them recover, a support rarely present outside the family context in India.

Celebrating his 84th birthday on a trip to Bodhgaya, Nalanda and Pawapuri, Patna-based S.N. Choudhry says, “Age is no bar to living and learning.”

Tours for elders catalysed when experts realised residents of old age homes – and other elders too - were keen to visit pilgrimage destinations. Some nursed a lifelong desire to take a ‘holiday’, pushed on the backburner by other priorities of daily living. Now, HelpAge offers elders living in homes as well as those who are part of senior citizens’ associations, a long list of ‘Make My Trip’ like options. The free-of-cost trips range from day programmes to two to three-day vacations. Special trips are organised even for semi-bedridden elders. Meticulous planning and briefing of senior citizens has ensured each of the 56 tours held so far in 23 locations, have concluded in a blaze of goodwill.

After an overnight trip to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, R.K. Moudgil of the Sector 37 Chandigarh Senior Citizens’ Brotherhood, said, “Each and every person was personally helped and we were quite comfortable during the trip as if our own sons were with us.” The 46 elders on the tour belonged to two senior citizens’ associations in Chandigarh and an old age home in Mohali.

In Kochi, the elders on a day-trip had to be initially cajoled into participatory activities by the organisers. As the tour progressed they let go of their inhibitions. Energetically singing, joking and laughing as they went from a butterfly park to a cattle-breeding farm to a church and the Athirapally Falls in the Sholayar range forests, the elderly women in the group even broke into an impromptu jig of the folk dance Mudiyattu.

“There is no question of feeling tired because the enjoyment is making us feel energetic,” said P.R. Srinivas, resident of the old age home Ashakta Poshak Sabha during a tour to Mysore.

Like him, most elders return with greater self-confidence. The bonding created with others on the tour is motivating. Sixty-five-year-old Md Musa Ansari from Patna, who had never stepped out of home, felt transformed after the two-day trip to Bodhgaya and Nalanda. He now regularly meets his new friends who belong to various senior citizens’ associations, even volunteering to assist elders in distress in his locality.

The pursuit of a meaningful and independent life for elders who often complain time hangs heavy on their hands is changing the traditional concept of free-pay old age homes. Dr. Pravat Mandal, Professor, National Brain Research Centre (NBRC), Manesar, points out, “With people living longer, a new model of ‘active ageing’ needs to be developed to prevent the rise of diseases like Alzheimer’s.”

Thus, the Tamairakulam Elders Village (TEV) in Cuddalore and Kalyan Ashram in Kolkata have standards of care for elder persons based on well thought out concepts of encouraging independence and productivity. TEV’s 100 residents are a careful mix of working, assisted and dependent elders. Residents grow crops, rear cattle and earn their own livelihoods in many ways. A community ethos has been recreated. Village-like dwellings combine spaces that are common, those that are semi-covered but interactive, private indoor spaces and also attached shelters for livestock.

Nor do these new age homes isolate themselves. Residents are not ‘shut in’. Elders self help groups of surrounding villages select destitute elders as residents. Local communities and panchayats are linked with TEV activities and residents participate in festivities and programmes of nearby towns and villages.

In Kolkata’s small Kalyan Ashram, the 20 women residents take part in inter generational activities such as the Loreto College festival. They integrate seamlessly with the cultural life of Kolkata, joining singing competitions and putting up stalls to sell handcrafted items in various fairs. Daily hobby and handicraft lessons and group exercises guided by professionals leave these women little time to brood on ill health or misfortune.