Kunda Gajendrawadhkar has travelled the world, raised three daughters, and lives in a comfortable home in Bandra, with neighbours who fondly address her as Ajji (grandmother).
But when her husband died in 2011, the 85-year-old Bandra resident was faced with an unexpected problem. Her daughters were settled in different parts of Maharashtra and, for the first time in her life, she found herself living alone. “I had no one to talk to,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe. I worried about break-ins, and about what would happen if I suffered a fall or a sudden illness. That’s when my daughters suggested I take in a paying guest.”
Software engineer Rohan Shinde, 22, moved in three years ago and rents Gajendrawadhkar’s extra bedroom. Originally from Solapur, he moved back from the US when he got a dream job with an Indian IT company. He was recommended to Gajendrawadhkar by her son-in-law, who works in the Pune branch of the same company. “I feel at home with Ajji. We have our meals together and watch TV together,” Shinde says. “It’s very difficult to find affordable flats in Bandra. Here, for just Rs 15,000 a month, I have a beautiful home close to my office in Bandra-Kurla Complex.”
Both alone in Mumbai, they take evening walks together, and Shinde accompanies Ajji to her monthly medical checks. Last week he helped her overcome a bout of conjunctivitis.
Across Mumbai, well-off but lonely seniors are taking the same way out, inviting strangers into their homes as paying guests and charging rents far lower than market rates, in exchange for the comfort of having someone close at hand to talk to or turn to in times of need.
“Loneliness and security are major problems for the elderly in Mumbai,” says Nasreen Rustomfram of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). “Having company in the form of youngsters living with them is one way out when the spouse is gone and the children have all moved away.” “Over the past three years, I never seen more and more seniors comfortably accept strangers into their homes,” says Prakash Borgaonkar, director of NGO HelpAge Mumbai. “Some are alone because children have moved away; others are childless. In the beginning, those who do not need the money are a bit hesitant to let a stranger into their homes. But it is becoming a common practice now, and once there is a feeling of trust, they find a lot of security having company at home. In many such cases the paying guest becomes like family.”
Activists and police officials, however, warn that thorough screening is essential.
Gajendrawadhkar, for instance, took in her lodger because he came highly recommended by family. “It is better if the elders get renters through acquaintance, neighbours or family members,” said Rustomfram. Senior citizens must also ideally register the names and personal details of paying guests at the local police station, to avoid being preyed upon.
Experts caution that seniors must also avoid becoming dependent or showing too much vulnerability. Ideally, there should always be a way that you can call for help yourself in an emergency of any kind — such as a cellphone with family, neighbours and police helplines on speed dial.
When the arrangement works out, though, the benefits work both ways. The senior can find a new family in the form of the lodger, and vice-versa. “Ajji is like my family in Mumbai,” says Shinde. “I do not miss my family in the US any more.”
Laughter therapy for a lonely diabetic
Had I known that paying guests were a safe option, I would have invited them into my home much earlier,” says Henry Ford, 75, a widower and retired insurance agent. “My son works as a mechanical engineer in Delhi and has been living away from home for more than a decade. He sends me a generous paycheque every month. But nothing makes me feel as good as companionship does.”
Ford opened his home to lodgers six years ago. In addition to being lonely, he was concerned about his health, given his severe diabetes.
For the past five years, he has had two youngsters — aspiring actor Rohan Gandhi, 26, and back-up dancer Amit Surti, 24 — to cheer him up and help him out.
They share his three-bedroom Mahim home for a minimal rate of Rs 10,000 each per month.
Pankaj Punjabi (24), a marketing executive, was a paying guest at Henry Ford's house until two months ago. He has currently taken a few days offs from work to look after Ford, who is in hospital with an infected wound. "I am closer to him than to my father," he says. (Photo: Sanjay Solanki)
“I almost charge no rent. Companionship is all I need,” Ford says. “It means more to me than medicine.”
Since the lodgers don’t work every day, at least one of them is usually home with Fort.
“We entertain uncle with our acting,” says Surti, laughing. “He also points out the flaws in our acting and suggests improvements. It’s non-stop fun.”
Ford says he loves sharing his boyhood tales with them. “These kids are so weak,” he says, laughing. “I was a strong built young man.”
Uncle tells us really interesting stories, Gandhi interjects. “For example, how when he was in college he would challenge his friends to arm-wrestling competitions and seldom lose.”
Independent, but she is not alone
Alba D’Souza, 83, (above) as a retired seamstress, rents out part of her two-bedroom Sion home to two women.
“After my husband died ten years ago, my three sons — who live in Mumbai, Goa and San Francisco — wanted me to move in with one of them. But I didn’t want to leave my house or my city,” she says.
She was lonely, and insecure about being by herself, so she decided to take in paying guests.
“Between my husband’s insurance policy and my sons, I have more than enough, but I don’t like living alone,” D’Souza says.
“Having paying guests gives me companionship, but I retain my independence.”
Over the years, she has had seven paying guests.
“I prefer students because they are home most of the time,” D’Souza says. “I have hired a broker to help me find paying guests. Most have been girls, but there are a few boys too.”
For the past six months, she has shared her home with management student Sheetal Arjun, 20, and law intern Aruna K, 22.
D’Souza says that while she often visits her grandchildren in the US, she doesn’t want to stay there forever.
“All my friends and relatives are here,” she adds. “I have lived in Sion my whole life.”
The lodgers, for their part, do what they can to make D’Souza’s life more comfortable.
“When Aunty Alba falls sick, we take her to the doctor, and she has often done the same for us,” said Arjun.
“We also celebrate everything together, from Christmas to work promotions. Because of her, this doesn’t feel like a rental; it feels like a home,” Arjun added.
From empty nest to joint family home
After serving for decades as schoolteachers, while raising a son of their own, the Murrawalas retired five years ago and suddenly found themselves alone in a silent three-bedroom Andheri flat.
“We were used to always being surrounded by children, so the empty nest syndrome hit us particularly hard,” says Janak, 59.
For four years, they shuttled between their home and their son’s base in Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh.
“Our son travels a lot on work, so there came a point when we couldn’t spend that much time with him,” says Janak.
A year ago, they decided to seek an alternative solution, and posted an ad in a daily newspaper, inviting applications from paying guests. Since they had more than enough money from their own retirement fund and their son, they were asking for a token sum of Rs 12,000 — a pittance for a house that size in that area.
One of the applicants was Apeksha Juri, a 26-year-old divorcee and media professional with a three-year-old son, Ayaan. She had moved to the city a year ago from Delhi, for work, and has now lived with them for nearly a year.
“Ayaan reminds us of our grandson. I love playing with him,” says Satish, 60.
It’s a perfect arrangement for the Juris too.
“The house is perfect and I have companionship of elders to keep me from feeling lonely,” Apeksha says. “They also take good care of my son, so I can work without stress.”