I’d Like To See You, If You Don’t Mind

With shrinking families, children who are away or too busy, and few support systems, senior citizens are finding themselves lonelier than ever before.

 With shrinking families, children who are away or too busy, and few support systems, senior citizens are finding themselves lonelier than ever before.


With shrinking families, children who are away or too busy, and few support systems, senior citizens are finding themselves lonelier than ever before. Photo : Vishwaant through a CC licens

Back in the early 1990s, when Ratnamma’s son left to the US to pursue a newly dreamt of software career, she was a proud woman. In the early days of liberalization, it was still very prestigious to have a child living abroad. Her son has now built a house there; Ratnamma’s grandchildren are nearing high school. Visits have slowly dwindled. After her husband’s death a couple of years ago, the 70-year old lives a terribly lonely life.

As India ages, it isn’t uncommon to find scores of Ratnammas amongst the 90 million elderly people in the country’s cities and villages. With children away on work in other cities or countries and little support from equally busy extended families, the elderly are lonelier and more emotionally frail than they have ever been. And a lot less safe.

Lonely in the City

A few years ago , the double murder of an aged couple living in the well laid out Jayanagar area of Bangalore hit headlines and sent shockwaves across a city that used to be once known as the pensioners’ paradise. The couple had been well-to-do, with children and relatives living elsewhere in Bangalore. The case was never solved but it brought to the fore the plight of thousands of old people living alone and being easy targets for crime.

The WHO India report on elder abuse brings up worrying findings. Among elderly men, money trouble worried those in the middle income segment. For those in the upper middle class, it was loneliness biting into their days, the lack of attention from the rest of the family, and the lack of activities to pass time. Most begin to get a sense of being a burden to their families, feel neglected, with old age itself becoming a disease.

Economic independence was listed as even more crucial for elderly women who felt that unless they had some money of their own, they would be subjected to ill-treatment and neglect. Loneliness is always nagging them and this leads to health problems.

I spoke to my neighbour Lakshmi, a 76-year old woman who lives with her husband, son and his family in a modest house. Her husband is all but bed ridden; he can barely move around the house by himself. Lakshmi is more active, she tries to go for short walks in the park nearby. Her son constantly advises her against this, “What if you fall down and there is no one to help? How will we know?”, he asks. Lakshmi tells me that she doesn’t want to walk on the terrace of her house. The park gives her a tiny sense of independence. Plus there are other people that she talks to. At home, Lakshmi’s husband cannot talk much, she worries about being very lonely if she stops going to the park.

In a bid to protect

For people like Lakshmi and Ratnamma, apart from being lonely, security is another major issue. As murders of old people began to rise in the city, the Bangalore city police adopted several measures to ensure the safety of the elderly who live alone.

Y L Rajesh, an inspector at HSR Layout Police Station in Bangalore tells me that all the elderly in each area  are given numbers of police stations and the personal numbers of the inspectors and constables so that they can call for help at any time. “We meet them frequently and remain extra vigilant if we know that there are elderly people living alone in a house. In case they decide on security systems for their homes, we help them with advice of how to set it up.”

Additionally, temporary vigilance points are put up near the houses of those who are going to be away for a few days.

Some like the Nightingales Medical Trust that works on health issues among the elderly, provide bracelets with a phone number and their ID number engraved, to ensure that they don’t get lost. This is especially helpful in case of dementia patients.


Incase of existing health problems being lonley aggravates the condition.

Janaagraha, an organization working on citizenship and democracy started the Area Suraksha Mitra program in association with the Directorate of Home Guards and Civil Defence in the aftermath of 26/11. Residents are appointed as Mitras to remain vigilant and ensure safety in an area of 3-4 streets in their locality. The ASMs work with the city police to provide security to the elderly and others and help reduce crime.

A lonely battle against disease

Talking to health workers and doctors, one finds that loneliness and neglect among the elderly almost always leads to health issues. In case of existing health problems, being lonely aggravates the conditions. Dr Priyamvada from Nightingales tells me that there is severe lack of awareness among people, even the upper middle class, about age related problems. In rural areas, serious conditions like dementia and early stages of Alzheimer’s were treated as normal aging symptoms. Among the urban populace, medical help was not sought until the condition had aggravated drastically.

“We need to increase awareness among the police to handle a patient of Alzheimer’s if they are found wandering. There needs to be a multi-disciplinary approach to deal with the elderly and their problems,” she says.

Though the elders’ helpline is used, in case of patients with mental illness, it is not enough even if the family is caring and vigilant. That is why Nightingales came up with the Nightingale Track project for early dementia patients or others.

A C Shivram, operations heads of VigilM, the company that implements the program explained to me how the system works. “The device that can be tied around the neck. It weighs 70 grams and has both GSM and GPS facilities. The GPS gives the location, latitude and longitude of the user and sends an SMS to “buddies”- children or neighbours who are listed with us. There is even an SOS button that the user can press in case of any danger and the buddies are instantly alerted,” he says.

The device does much more. You can set safe zones like homes, parks, children’s homes, etc and as soon as the user breaches the zone, an alert gets sent. All the information is sent through the GSM card. When availed through organizations like Dignity Foundation or Nightingale’s, device costs Rs 4000, with a monthly charge of Rs 200. For the others, it is sold at Rs 4500 for the device and Rs 250 per month for the service. Shivram tells me that they have extended the service to other cities and claim that there are hundreds of people using the system.


Come talk to me

The WHO report on elder abuse detailed that members of the family and the health workers or care givers did not have time to listen to the elders, leading to the latter feeling lonely and neglected, thus resulting in increasing health issues. The lack of mobility and economic dependence aggravates the situation. In case of verbal or physical abuse, there is a sense of shame that disallows the elderly from talking about their problems with others.

In India, the elderly have been traditionally regarded as the bearers of wisdom and been respected and even revered for that. Yet, with youngsters leading eternally busy lives fueled by a booming economy, and the increasing nuclearisation of families, the old find themselves sans company.

What is perhaps most crucial in a society that is aging is sensitization of the young towards the needs of the elderly and the counseling of the old to understand the changing values and lifestyles of the younger generations.

While we scramble to set up institutions that can support them and technology that can assist them, it wouldn’t hurt to sit down and listen to them for just a little while every day.

Deepa Bhasthi is a writer and independent journalist based in Bangalore. She blogs at http://dbhasthi.blogspot.com more


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Deepa Bhasthi is a writer and independent journalist based in Bangalore. She blogs at http://dbhasthi.blogspot.com more
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