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Old and insecure

Senior citizens are feeling increasingly insecure about their physical safety. And despite efforts, the authorities haven't quite managed to instill confidence in those they're mandated to protect. Nivedita Khandekar & Megha Sood report. Seniors not at ease with computers

india Updated: Jan 26, 2010 01:15 IST

Lieutenant Commodore (Retired) GD Sharma (79), cannot forget that muggy night. Assailants tried to break into his house in Paschim Vihar, West Delhi. Sharma and his wife Kaushalya, 77, were alone at home.

Sharma switched on all the lights inside and outside the entrance and raised an alarm. A double-door, three-latch system helped him thwart the burglary attempt, made in May 2007.

South Delhi resident Rama Nath (73) was not as fortunate. A vegetable vendor she let into her Safdarjung Enclave home to drink water returned with accomplices and slit her throat with a kitchen knife in July 2009. Luckily, her brother happened to come home in time, to discover a bleeding Nath.

Last year, in March, 66-year-old Lucknow trader Arun Jaiswal and his wife Urmila, 62, were found murdered inside their flat.

According to the Kolkata Police web site, there are close to 81 million senior citizens in India. Of these, around 30 per cent stay alone. Not surprisingly, senior citizens become easy prey for criminal predators. In Delhi, say police records, as many as 17 senior citizens were murdered in 2009, up from 15 cases in 2008.

More than 400,000 of Mumbai’s one million senior citizens stay alone. NGO workers say 188 senior citizens were killed in Mumbai over the past decade. In 2009, more than 30 elderly became targets of robbery and murder in the nation’s commercial capital.

“The biggest terror problem we face is not from Pakistan, but from domestic terror, especially aimed at senior citizens,” says Mumbai Police Commissioner D Sivanandhan.

Chandigarh, once considered a peaceful city, has seen a spurt in violent incidents against senior citizens. Tripta Hans (78) was assaulted as she came out of her house in Sector 35.An iron grille network, three-latch system on the doors helps Lakshmini Govindram feel safe at home. Sunil Saxena/HT

Neglect from family and loved ones makes the elderly vulnerable to such attacks. “They suffer from loneliness and need a listener. So, they open up immediately to domestic helps and strangers who take advantage of this proximity,” says Neha Shah, Mumbai-based project manager at the Dignity Foundation, which operates a helpline for the elderly.

As soft targets for criminal minds, where do senior citizens turn to in an emergency?
“Taking police help is okay, but not enough. The role of residents’ welfare associations is crucial. It is important that the community be involved,” says Sharma, a former naval officer.

The three-lock system, with latches/bolts at the top, middle and bottom of the main door—implemented by Lakshmi Govindram (88) of Delhi’s East Patel Nagar—is one of the security measures recommended by the Delhi Police. “A security audit of residential premises of senior citizens revealed the need for safety equipment such as door chains, magic eye, iron grille and safety locks,” says Delhi Police spokesperson Rajan Bhagat.

Neighbours, residents’ welfare bodies and relatives can play a role, too. The Senior Citizens Council of Delhi has about 700 members. Of these, 150 relatively young members are volunteers. They meet seniors living alone every alternate day.
At a meeting in November 2009, the Veteran’s Sahayata Samiti, a self-help group of senior citizens in Lucknow, floated the idea of community policing before Lucknow Deputy Inspector General of Police Prem Prakash.

But foolproof security for senior citizens has to be a two-way process, says Prakash. “Both the police and public have to participate. The elderly have to be alert and be in touch with the nearest police station,” says Prakash.

Dedicated phone helplines help assure the elderly that the police and society care for them.

The Mumbai police have launched helplines and websites where the elderly can register themselves and call for emergency, medical or counselling assistance. More than 22,000 senior citizens are registered with ElderLine, a network of individuals and organisations who volunteer their services to help senior citizens. The scheme functions through Mumbai Police Infoline 1090.

“I have been staying alone since my husband died three years ago. I had been suffering from loneliness since I did not get out of the house much. Last year, I registered myself with the Elderline. Since then, I call the helpline sometimes even thrice a day just to talk,” says Vinita Kamble (76), a resident of Marine Drive and a former banker. In Delhi, the helpline 1291 attends to distress calls from senior citizens. A mechanism has been devised to monitor their calls and conduct regular checks on actions taken by the local police.

During 2009, the Delhi Police’s Senior Citizens Security cell contacted 3,641 senior citizens in person and 13,740 senior citizens over the telephone.

But despite these senior citizens continue to feel unsafe, as is evident from our survey.

Inputs from Darpan Singh and Rohit K Singh in Lucknow and Vishav Bharti in Chandigarh