Shridhar Nagalkar plays a game of pool on most evenings. On other days, the 76-year-old retired consultant general surgeon plays bridge with his new friends, all determined to beat the isolation and stress of the pandemic.
“We have to learn to live with the Coronavirus,” he says, speaking from Athashri Senior Living homes in Baner, Pune. Positive thinking is the way forward in any adverse situation, he adds.
As soon as the lockdown was lifted in June 2020, he moved into the retirement commune along with his wife Swarupa, 72, “to a place where all amenities are provided for, including mobile ATM services,” he says.
According to a 2018 study by CII-ASLI (Confederation of Indian Industry and Association of Senior Living India) Out of India’s roughly 13-14 crore senior citizens, 30% live in urban cities and 70% in rural areas. Only 2% of its seniors live in retirement communities.
Though the global health crisis has affected people universally, it has pushed seniors into a more vulnerable position. Being more susceptible to the virus and prone to conditions like depression, this demographic faces specific challenges that the managements of retirement homes and communities were quick to respond to. They implemented total segregation from the outside world, and put in place the required health protocol. Most have begun tutoring seniors in the use of social media, as virtual interaction becomes the need of the hour.
The pandemic has resulted in two significant outcomes: a change in the perception of communes for the elderly and the spirited response by seniors towards the crisis.
Colonel A Sridharan (retired), founder and MD, CovaiCare Active Living Homes, which has centres across Tamil Nadu, says, “The demand for senior homes has increased significantly, by almost 25% - 30% in the last one year. At roughly ₹30,000 per month, a couple has a safe and comfortable life in such centres.”
Except for the distressing fact that the children of the seniors have not been able to visit as regularly, residents of such communities have rallied strong during the pandemic, to keep not only stress at bay, but also the virus itself.
Kuruvilla M George, secretary of Chacko Homes, Alwaye, Kochi, is pleased that so far, no one has taken ill. “Many of our residents are retired doctors and advised us on the safety protocols. Every month we hold talks, prayer meetings and general meetings so that everyone is in touch,” he says.
Colonel Sridharan, who helped put in place a system of safety protocols and virtual entertainment programmes at CovaiCare, says, “We play badminton, table tennis, and pool with masks, and maintain social distancing.”
At Athashri, every day, Savita Achyut Gokhale weaves garlands from the blossoms of the bakul trees. She keeps a few for herself and places the rest at the reception. “The other residents take the garlands for their hair or puja . This makes me happy and keeps me busy,” says the 70-year-old, adding that this has been her way to keep everybody’s spirits high.
Savita, who lost her husband to COVID-19 two months ago, says about her outreach, “There are many here who are older than I am, and find it difficult to bend and collect the fallen flowers. I spread old dupattas under the trees, gather the flowers and weave them into garlands. Everyone likes to have one. It motivates them.”
Meghali Khatdare, CEO of Athashri Homes that caters to nearly 1,900 seniors, backs Savita up by saying, “It was the psychological impact of the pandemic that posed a new challenge.” She adds, “We made sure that the residents’ every need — grocery, fruits, vegetables, ATM machines, medicines — was made available at their doorstep. To counter the isolation, we planned monthly virtual programmes designed for seniors.”
Initially it was difficult to bring the older people together virtually, “as many seniors do not use the smart phones much,” but resident managers taught them to use it and familiarised them with video calls, text messaging and using social media. “This was another engaging and learning activity for the seniors,” Meghali adds.
At 92, Captain Kunjipalu TA is the oldest resident of Chacko Homes in Kochi. Driving around the campus in his Honda City, the retired pilot chats with other residents and regales them with stories from his distinguished 37-year-long career in the Indian Airlines.
“There should be no complaining. The sun is up. Everything is looking good. The day should start like this,” says the man who invested in a retirement home 23 years ago, and moved in seven years ago after his wife passed away.
Despite being bedridden after a stroke last year, Swarn Mongia, 92, remains the centre of affection at the Senior Living Home, Godhuli, New Delhi. One of the first residents of the commune nearly 20 years ago, others visit to “seek her blessings”.
Her daughter, Amita who lives in Maryland, USA, discloses that when her parents took the decision to move into a senior living commune, it was “social suicide. The act was frowned upon. My mother has been a very spirited woman, always an example to others at Godhuli. That’s why they continue to come to her for inspiration, more so in these tough times.”
Colonel Sridharan points to the fact that the seniors at the centres are highly qualified retired professionals and very resourceful. “They have devised interesting ways to negotiate the prevailing times.”
He shares the example of 71-year-old Revathi Bhaskar, a former bank officer who quickly came up with a game of tambola for the residents.
“In every elderly person, there is a child. This is our second childhood,” says Revathi, adding that she put the game together to prevent residents from falling into depression. Around 40 residents signed up immediately for the LockDown Tambola, as Revathi called it. She designed the tickets and preceded the game with a quiz, “as a warm up”.
Though Revathi lost her husband during the pandemic, she says the tambola games are in his memory. She recalls him encouraging her by saying, “You spend one hour and bring joy to 50 people; so it is 50 hours of happiness. This is worth all the trouble.”