Two decades ago, when Sheilu Sreenivasan founded the Mumbai-based Dignity Foundation, a non-profit organisation working for the elderly, little did she expect that the demand for old-age homes would grow the way it has. “Earlier, only destitute people sought shelter in homes, set up mostly by religious institutions, but things are changing,” she says.
Sociological factors are responsible, and Ms. Sreenivasan points to the breakdown of the joint family, which happened when people migrated to other cities or countries for work, as one of the key reasons why the elderly find themselves on their own today. The larger family offered a support system to the aged, but that has been taken away.
Several companies have launched retirement homes across the country. However, even this mushrooming growth has not been enough, with demand outstripping supply. “Across India, you’ll find, say, 25-30 dedicated projects meant for old people, not more,” says Ms. Sreenivasan. Pointing to the vulnerability of senior citizens in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, where incidents of attacks and murders are fairly high, she says, “Imagine the condition of the surviving spouse after the partner passes away.”
Dignity Foundation’s facility takes care of the small details. “The flats don’t have attached kitchens, for the simple reason that Indian men are in the habit of getting their aged wives to cook or make tea for them!” The idea is to ensure that the inhabitants feel liberated and enjoy good company, with few responsibilities. The cottage-style homes offer food, medicine and social activities, to ensure that residents remain productive socially, intellectually and culturally.
“Paid homes are available for different income groups, with sizes ranging from 300 sq. ft to 1,500 sq. ft. One can buy or pay a lump sum deposit for use till required. Deposits range from Rs. 50,000 onwards with monthly payments beginning from Rs. 3,000 a month.” Like others, this too has assisted living for people with ailments, focussing especially on dementia. “Senior citizens with mental health issues usually have no place to go to,” Ms. Sreenivasan says.
The main problem is raising funds. Chennai-based advocate Sudha Ramalingam, founder of Manonmani Trust, spoke about her struggle with Anbagam project in a village in Tiruvallur. “No Corporate Social Responsibility fund was willing to donate,” she says. The project, a three-storied building for 140 people, needs Rs. 50 lakh and stands incomplete.
As the stigma attached to old age homes slowly fades, the elderly are increasingly finding that they are a boon. Says Leela Venkateshwaran, 72, who lives in S.S.M. Residency in Chennai: “I live comfortably here; all my basic needs are taken care of. There is a well-stocked library. I go for morning walks with my friends. I don’t get bored at all.”
She admits that she does occasionally miss her children and grandchildren in the U.S. “But their life is so different, I cannot fit in. They visit or speak to me over the phone, which makes me happy.” She adds: “Almost four years after my husband passed away, I have a room of my own with good friends for company. What more can I ask for at this age?”