Coimbatore: “Don’t make old age homes. It should be a place to live with some pride and prestige. It should be a life with dignity. This was the advice of my guru Swami Dayananda Saraswathi,” says A.V. Ramaswamy, Managing Trustee of Vanaprastha, a senior citizens’ home in Coimbatore.
Thanks to its extremely impressive service, it has virtually inspired a number of such homes in and around Coimbatore city.
For the 74-year-old former UN official, it is not the brick and mortar that make a senior citizens’ home. “It is the package of services, especially medical assistance, which plays the crucial role. It should be able to enrich the lives of the inmates”.
In an interaction with G. Satyamurty, he explains how he stumbled upon a project like Vanaprastha, which has been growing like a banyan tree.
Born in Thrissur, he graduated in Economics from Sacred Heart’s College, Kochi. After working for a couple of years in the USAID, he was roped into the UNICEF. “Most of my career was related to some social welfare project or the other. When I joined the UNICEF I was just 24. I have had postings in various countries including China, and welfare of women and children, and healthcare, were some of my major assignments.”
Despite the pressure to continue, he sought an early retirement from the UNICEF as he wanted to do something for the society.
He personally oversaw the construction of the Anaikatty Ashram on a 65-acre site where Swami Dayananda Saraswathi stays. Besides, he became a director in various organisations.
“The concept of a senior citizens’ home came into my life in 1996-97. I had some idea regarding such organisations functioning in the United States. Some of them are so big that they could accommodate even 1,000 people. However, I could purchase only two acres the next financial year.”
Mr. Ramaswami points out that while Vanaprastha Trust was conceived as a non-profitable organisation, “I was particular that donations should not be accepted. It should be self-supporting and thus economically viable. Besides, the package of services should make the inmates feel comfortable and secure.”
The first phase, which originally started with a multipurpose hall and 20 cottages, grew into one of 60 houses.
“On the very day of the bhoomi puja for the next phase, named Dhyanaprastha, in 2002-03, all the 50 houses planned had been booked,” Mr. Ramaswamy proudly points out.
“As I didn’t want the Vanaprastha to be crowded, I have made Dhyanaprastha a totally separate entity though that is also administered by the same trust.” Despite such a phenomenal success in this front, which has made him very popular, he still bats for the “joint family system”. “As I was born in that system, I still feel it great,” she says.
He admits that nowadays privacy is required “both for the young and the old and nuclear families have become the norm of the day”.
“Even if the relationship between the parents and their wards is absolutely fine, living together has become an issue. I concede that joint family system cannot work anymore. Double employment is another serious issue which can play havoc in some families.”
“I don’t think it (double employment providing greater comfort and prosperity) is 100 per cent true. A lot of people (women) go in for prestige and a sense of satisfaction. Some seek economic emancipation. But what a disturbance it causes to the children?” he asks.
Mr. Ramaswamy is categorical that women should take care of children up to the age of at least 12. “No sophisticated nanny can match a mother.”
He admits that not all those people who are seeking such homes are “fully justified”. “If at all they can recognise that other people (sons and daughters) also have similar problems, most of the issues could be solved. Coimbatore needs more such homes as there is quite a lot of demand , thanks to its salubrious climate.”
“I tell them do not come here with a feeling that you have no other alternative. But you should come here with a contented mind, happy and ready to accept this change as a reality. Besides, if there are a number of activities in which the seniors can voluntarily involve themselves and spend their time purposefully, that could be immensely helpful.”
Apart from activities like bhajans, discourses, music concerts, etc., he is happy to note that the inmates have adopted a nearby balwadi and a panchayat elementary school. Besides providing the children milk, they also give them uniform and books. They have constructed even 10 toilets. All this is done by pooling in their resources voluntarily.
The medical centre and the physiotherapy unit functioning at Vanaprastha are open to all the villagers as well.
“We have also constructed a pyramid which can accommodate more than 100 people for meditation.” While senior citizens do need this type of support, it could prove a “disaster” if it were to be handled by wrong persons or organisations, he warns.
He also gives vent to his latest apprehensions that have started haunting him. “Honestly when I started the project I didn’t feel so. But when I see some of the inmates passing away and some becoming single, I realise that there is a paradigm shift in the lives of such people. And they should be provided proper support services, including resident nurses, if necessary.”