Swarn Malik looks forward to the visit of her "best friends" - 26-year-old Neha Sinha and 25-year-old Mrigna Nagraj. The 84-year-old often discusses movies, music and books, and plays online games with them. But Sinha and Nagraj are not her neighbourhood girls or relatives; they are care specialists who visit Malik at her Gurgaon home to give her companionship. Though Malik, a former teacher, lives with her family that includes a 16-year-old granddaughter, she feels that spending time with the two girls is a different experience altogether.
"My family leads a busy life, and it is not always possible for them to spend as much time with me as they would want to. Besides, my conversations with Mrigna and Neha are different from those with my family members. With these women, I talk about matters like my travels, mythology and movies at home. It's I who do all the talking when they are at home. We also watch movies together. They helped me learn how to use the Internet and find my way around Facebook," says the iPad-wielding Malik.
Malik is not alone. An increasing number of elderly people in the city are hiring the services of elder care specialists, not for health reasons, but for companionship, which includes having "meaningful" conversations, accompanying the elderly to events and outings, reading and discussing current events, books, experiences and memories.
Usha Arora, a 91-year-old resident of Vasant Vihar, is writing her memoir with the help of Surbhi Gupta, an elder care specialist who visits her thrice a week. "I have two servants, but there is nothing I can discuss with them. With Surabhi, who is younger than my grandchildren, I discuss everything from my experiences of the Partition to the news of the day. She even helps me write emails to my family members," says Arora, who graduated from Punjab University in 1942.
Kabir Chadha, the chief executive and founder of Epoch Eldercare, a company which extends at-home care to about 40 clients in the city, says his company keeps its clients active and intellectually engaged. "Elderly people may have the best facilities at home, but they suffer from emotional distress because either their children are living abroad or they lead extremely busy lives. Our elder care specialists are socially savvy people who help them in self-actualisation," says Chadha.
His viewpoint is supported by Kapil Sood, senior vice-president, First Seniors, another company which provides a range of at-home services to the elderly, including companionship. "Delhi is the biggest market for elder-care services in the country. It has a large number of elderly people who are not just well-informed but also well-off. Our customers include retired generals and judges, who take companionship services to keep themselves mentally stimulated. They like to discuss their health, their children, current affairs and politics," he says.
The companionship costs anything between Rs 11,000 and Rs 25,000 a month, depending on time spent with the clients.
The elder-care specialists, who mostly have backgrounds in psychology, say they provide focused attention to the elderly. And this involves a lot of home work, especially in cases where the elderly people are well-read.
"We try to read up on the subjects our clients are interested in so that we can have engaging conversations," says Sinha, an elder-care manager at Epoch Elder Care, adding, "They are fairly open with us and discuss things they may not be discussing with their own children and grandchildren. So, we even discuss the issues of beauty and fashion. Recently, one of our clients, a 90- year-old woman, went to the market and bought blusher with one of my colleagues."
But is not an elder-care specialist's job fraught with emotional baggage? "We try to be professional in our approach," says Chadha.