‘Of the 25,000 homeless people in Bengaluru, around 7,500 are elderly women’

Sandhya Suraksha was launched in January this year.   | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

A Tamil song starts playing from a tape recorder on a weekend evening. A few elderly women, some in night gowns and some others in saris, who until then were sitting on the lawn basking in the rays of the setting sun, start dancing. Some others continue with their game of carrom while the rest sit on the verandah and watch.

All 37 women, who are living in Sandhya Suraksha, a joint project of the Methodist Church of India and Nightingales Medical Trust (NMT) to provide shelter for homeless elderly women, were in different states of destitution when they were found.

With an approaching “Grey Tsunami” — a sudden and vast rise in the elderly population in the next two decades — the spotlight is on the challenges associated with caring for the elderly, including providing shelter and healthcare.

A 2019 HelpAge India report, Home Care for the Elderly: A Call to Action, points out that with India has the second-largest global population of elderly citizens, and most of them “live a life of destitution, ill health, neglect and abuse”.

With the elderly population slated to increase manifold, the report predicts that the problem will take on a “bewildering proportion” as a majority of them belong to marginalised sections — 71% living in rural areas, over 50% being women and widowed, and nearly half belonging to poor socio-economic sections of society.

The report also points to the levels of destitution. Though there is no organised data, the report estimates that India has close to three million elderly who are destitute, going by the current overall population data on destitution of 28.5%, and that 93% of the elderly belong to the unorganised sector with no post-retirement benefits.

What the law mandates

Understanding the burgeoning need of the elderly to a basic shelter, Section 19 of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents’ and Senior Citizens’ Act (MWPSCA), 2007 prescribes that the State government has to establish at least one old age home in each district, with a minimum of 150 senior citizens who are indigent.

In the affidavit submitted by the States and Union Territories to the writ petition, none had at least one old age home per district. And wherever they were, they did not have the stipulated capacity.

In Bengaluru, according to NMT, which runs the elders helpline (1090/ 080-22943226) with the city police, of the approximately 25,000 homeless people estimated by the civic body, around 7,500 are elderly women.

A cry for help

A staff member at the elders helpline said they receive around 10 calls a month from destitute senior citizens. But Swati Bhandary, associate director, NMT, said there has been an increase in cases of elders being abandoned, but calls do not usually come to the helpline. “People from the public usually reach out to the beat or traffic police, who then alert the jurisdictional police station. The police station has a network with rehabilitation centres to which they refer the elders,” she said.

She added that after Sandhya Suraksha was started this January, from two admissions in the first month and 12 in March, there were 14 in June.

“We did a social media campaign urging the public to be more proactive in reporting cases of elders found abandoned. Many times, elders choose to live on the streets and beg. It is a challenge to get them to agree to live in a home. Many of them refuse to accept help and prefer to remain on the streets,” Ms. Bhandary said.

Radha S. Murthy, co-founder and managing trustee, NMT, said the reasons for abandonment are mostly estrangement from family, especially children.

“Most of the destitute elderly are from the lower income group. They put in many years of hard work but are unable to save enough to meet their needs as they grow old. Dependency on children to meet their needs increases the financial burden on the children, leading to friction and disruption of relationships. Many elders live a life of neglect and suffer in silence. Some feel forced to take to the streets to fend for themselves,” she said.

For Hamsa, 61, from Bengaluru, life took a turn for the worse after her son died two years ago. “He was a security guard in an apartment and my daughter-in-law used to work as a domestic help. After my son died, she let me live with her and her two children for five months. Then suddenly one day she said she wanted to move back to her parents’ place and asked me to leave,” she said.

Elders have been found begging at street signals, railway stations and bus stations, and are found in “pitiable conditions”, at times with problems such as drug and alcohol addiction, experts say.

Seetha was found in a similar state. She was unable to respond in any language the volunteers tried to communicate in, and could not even tell them her name or the place she came from. She was then named by the volunteers.

The first attempt at rehabilitation is with the family, as the elders helpline works towards tracing the family and reuniting them after counselling. In the past eight months, 17 elderly women were discharged, of whom at least 13 were reunited with their family, Dr. Murthy said.

But willingness to shift to shelters is low, according to the helpline staff. “When we go to meet them after we get calls from the public, we come back empty-handed quite a few times as they are not ready to shift from the streets and lose the income they are getting from begging,” said a staff member. “But our intention is that no one should be on the street.”

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 10:19:35 PM |

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