Chennai’s elderly have somebody to lean on

Chennai’s elderly have somebody to lean on

Chitra Deepa Anantharam

City-based organisation Udhavi bridges the gap between the young and old, providing the city’s senior citizens with support and cheer

When author, playwright, novelist and textile researcher Sabita Radhakrishnan decided to launch an NGO for elder care and support in 2013, she was clear about one aspect. Apart from providing geriatric support, she also wanted to spread cheer. “The elderly (over 65 years) population in the city is on the rise, and is largely neglected. As long as they live as couples, they manage, but after one of them departs, they begin to seek support, and the quality of life decreases with their children living and working outside the country,” says Sabita. “Our country is not at all elderly-friendly, be it easy access to buildings or priority to services.”

During her growing-up years in Bangalore, where her father was a medical practitioner, she had always had elders, especially grandparents, stay with the family. “I have such good memories of playing board games, listening to stories. My father believed that if old people had good mental health, it reflected in their physical wellbeing. In his hospital, he also accommodated nurses and matrons whose children simply abandoned them here and migrated to Australia and England. These people lived within the nursing home.” So Sabita was naturally inclined to take up service to elders as an adult.

“I decided to start an NGO to support the elderly population in memory of my daughter who passed away at a young age. But I could not do it all by myself, and started looking out for like-minded people,” says Sabita. She approached the founders of Old is Gold store in Adyar, KP Jayashree and Sanjay Dattatri, and they joined hands. Today, Udhavi has 13 core members and over 40 volunteers.

“The mission of Udhavi is to stave off loneliness,” says Sabita. “The idea that someone has the time to spend with them excites the beneficiaries, most of whom have had full-fledged careers, loving spouses and extended families. With many offspring living outside the country, it does become a great deal for them to even chat with anyone in person,” she says.

Quality time

Lalitha Ramachander, one of the core group members, says that they encourage volunteers to make house visits and spend time with the beneficiaries — play a game of Scrabble, accompany them to the doctor, collect their outfits from tailor, take then to a movie or a concert, drive them to park or beach, or even chat over a plate of dosa and filter coffee.

Says Sudhesh Sharma, another core group member, “As far as possible, we match the profiles and intellectual levels of the beneficiaries and the volunteers so that they spend meaningful time together. We need young volunteers as these seniors say that they feel rejuvenated when a youngster spends quality time with them.”

But the younger ones are not doing it all one. According to Sabita, “Our committed core team at times goes out of their way to provide support and care, even though they themselves are in the 60s. One of our core team members even sends vegetarian food to beneficiaries who miss home-cooked food whenever possible,” says Sabita. She says that even elders who live with their children often feel lonely as they spend the entire day all by themselves. “I want young people to understand what it is to be old and what kind of support is to be provided. We take our parents for granted.”

Down memory lane

Volunteers also teach the elderly to use the Internet, Skype and smartphones. While some of the beneficiaries of Udhavi prefer to get out of their homes with volunteers, some prefer to be in their home environment and chat. A Bengali playwright and a scholar, Sundanda Ghosh, loves to go to Besant Nagar beach and stop for a cup of coffee and snack once in a while, as she has lived in the locality for many decades and the drive brings back pleasant memories.

Last year, after Dr Sridhar Vaitheswaran was roped in as their consultant psychiatrist, they have started visits to patients identified by him. The core team underwent training in handling mentally ill seniors. “We wanted insights into the life of people with dementia, Alzheimer’s and various other conditions, so that we can understand the challenges and provide necessary support,” Sabita says.

Time, not money

As a policy, Udhavi does not accept any cash donations. They only seek volunteers who can spend their time. Once every quarter, the core team contributes to expenditures incurred. “We utilise these funds to reimburse taxi, entertainment and other expenses incurred by volunteers,” says Kalpana Ramani of the core team.

“We are now trying to focus on elders in the underprivileged section of our society by helping them procure Aadhar card, insurance card and avail Government benefits,” says Sabitha, who has recently published a booklet, Handbook For Silvers, an elaborate set of guidelines for seniors living by themselves.

Another beneficiary is civic activist and long time-resident of Besant Nagar, 93-year old Kamakshi Subramaniyan, well known as Kamakshi Patti among her neighbours. She says, “They usually send two volunteers for hospital visits. I live on my own and manage fairly well, but of late I have felt the need for help with shopping. I simply love to chat away with Udhavi volunteers, and I wish they come more often.” .

Call Udhavi at 9790704874.