Life & Style

Happy living for the elderly

How senior citizens who have opted for retirement homes are working on physical and mental health during the pandemic

Up in the hills of Dehradun, Ren Madan celebrated his 92nd birthday last week with his wife Leontine, 89, and their friends. They wore masks and gloves, and maintained the physical distancing norms of our COVID-19 times, as they gathered in the dining hall of the Antara Senior Living residential home, to cut a birthday cake baked by the wellness staff.

“Had I been in my home in Manali now, it would not have been possible to take care of things amidst the present restrictions,” says the senior-most resident at the facility. He and Leontine will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary next month, unsure of when they will be able to meet their two children, both doctors in the US. Last month, the Madans had to be content with participating in the marriage ceremony of their granddaughter on a Zoom call.

All things considered though, the birthday celebration “is a nice feeling that helps to push away dark thoughts especially during these trying times,” says Ren, who is learning Spanish now. “We are kept engaged like back in school,” he adds with a laugh.

Fellow resident, Nasir Tyabji and his wife Bina, professors who retired from JNU and Delhi School of Economics, respectively, were pleasantly surprised to see their daughter turn up at Antara one day. Her flight had been facilitated by the staff of the facility, when they realised Tyabji was worried about not seeing her through the lockdown.

Seniors at risk

As one of the most vulnerable groups, the management and staff of several senior citizens’ homes are taking precautions to keep residents (including its staff) safe physically, while helping people interact with precautions, to take care of mental health too. Antara, for instance, went into lockdown a week before it was officially announced. “This allowed us time to prepare the residents mentally, stock up essentials, make provisions for the staff to stay on the campus, plan regular counselling sessions and fun activities while having zero contact with the external environment,” says Tara Singh Vachani, the Executive Chairman. She says they have not reduced staff strength to make sure emergencies are taken care of in the same way they would have before the lockdown.

Miles away, 75-year-old Prema Viswanathan living in Vanaprastha, a senior citizens’ home near Coimbatore, says she had a vertigo attack and the staff was at her doorstep to take her to the clinic after she made an intercom call. The management has made arrangements for the staff (that includes nursing assistants, helpers, cleaners and cooks) to stay back on the campus during the entire period of the lockdown. “Nobody is allowed to leave the premises and no outsider is allowed entry. Supplies are ordered over the phone and the delivery boy leaves them at the gate to minimise the risk of transmission of the Coronavirus,” she says and adds, “it makes you feel safe.”

It’s the same for those at the Nana Nani Homes, Ananya Shelters’ signature project in Coimbatore. S Geetha, from the management says, they have shut the gates of their society ever since the lockdown. The supplies are ordered over the phone and after the delivery boys leave them at the gate, the items (such as milk packets, fruits and vegetables) are given a thorough wash before being brought inside. “All this may take some extra time and labour, but we cannot afford to put a single resident at risk,” she says. The place has been out of bounds even for the family members of the elderly residents.

In neighbouring Kerala, Sister S D Jeslet at San Thom Snehalayam in Ernakulam, takes care of 40 senior citizens over 65 years. Many of them, she says, have had a difficult life facing elderly abuse in the past. This is another turning point for them, having to cope with the trauma of being vulnerable to COVID-19. Along with her team of sisters, doctors and therapists, she helps them to adopt a routine of exercising, reading, and praying, to remain physically and mentally occupied. "The oldest resident is 98 years and it does not matter whether they finish the task or how much time they take as long as they keep themselves comfortably busy," says Sister Jeslet.

Interacting with caution

The need now is to balance the humane needs with rigour and protocol, says Major Sathyanarayanan Parthasarathy, co-founder, Melur Meadows Retirement Village near Mettupalayam (Coimbatore). Much before the COVID-19 lockdown, he says, the group had built houses spread across the luxury of greenery, open space, air and sunlight.

Given the layout, it has not been difficult to help residents keep physical distance. “Sometimes, they’d come together for activities — cooking, baking, gardening, farming — and we make sure they do these activities in small batches,” he says. For instance, the yoga sessions earlier were conducted in batches of six; now only two people attend a class. “We are delivering meals to every resident’s home instead of asking them to compulsorily come to the dining area. Our service care providers hand over the food to the residents and collect the utensils later,” says Sathyanarayanan.

Regulations in the dining hall at Nana Nani Homes has made CN Andal more confident of going in to eat, rather than eating her food alone. “Earlier, many of us could sit around a table and chat and eat, but now the number of tables has been reduced and only two residents are allowed to sit at one table,” she says and adds that the entire area is well protected and regularly sanitised. “Though we have to be alert, I do not feel worried of catching the infection here,” she says.

She misses meeting her grandchildren, whom she visits in summer. “But the staff make sure I do not feel lonely. They take turns to visit me and help me do the Skype calls with my family.”

Besides routine temperature, pulse and oxygen level checks for every staff member and resident, retirement homes are also looking at arranging for indoor games, simple exercises, spiritual talks, or movie screenings. “We want them to bond and let them meet in small groups as permitted under the protocol for the activities they enjoy doing,” says Sathyanarayanan.

Age in place

Dr AB Dey, Head, Department of Geriatric Medicine, AIIMS Delhi, says that alarmist news makes senior citizens fear death more than a person who has the day’s busy-ness to keep them distracted. He says there are ways of developing a positive attitude to help keep stress levels down:

Step out of the room and get some sunshine daily.

Keep walking at intervals even if it is around the house, on the terrace or balcony.

Practise deep breathing.

Gently push yourself to do some safe and simple stretching and bending exercises.

Follow a quarantine routine for meals and sleep.

However tough it may be, do smile.

Keeping up the spirits

Dr Sheetal Bidkar, clinical psychologist, Suasth One Step Clinic, Mumbai, suggests family members pitch in with the following:

Be an empathetic listener

Expand family duties to mean seniors are included in most daily activities at home

Quiet companionship is also important

Acknowledge their concern for anything so that they do not hide or mask their feelings, loneliness or depression.

Ask for consent before helping them

Help them revive hobbies or habits

Initiate them into solving crosswords, puzzles and Sudoku for cognitive alertness

Keep in touch over the phone if they are away from you

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Printable version | Jul 6, 2020 12:05:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/how-senior-citizens-who-have-opted-for-retirement-homes-are-working-on-physical-and-mental-health-during-the-pandemic/article31934082.ece

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