Lockdown leaves the elderly without friends, support
New Delhi: Feeling lonely cooped up all alone inside his apartment for the past four days, 78-year-old Kewal Prakash Sharma on Friday decided to step out for a walk inside his gated community’s park in Mayur Vihar.
Fifteen minutes after his return his son based in New Jersey, US, called, giving him an earful for not heeding his advice to remain at home. “I think he has asked someone to keep an eye on me. He never screamed at me like this but I know he cares about me and was worried,” says Sharma. “I am aware that the threat from coronavirus is real, but it is hard to remain inside all the time, alone, not knowing when things will get back to normal.”
The ongoing nationwide lockdown has brought sudden, overwhelming challenges to the lives of the elderly in Delhi – thousands of who live alone and usually depend on networks of fellow senior citizens for emotional support, with whom they used to socialise with in local parks and recreation centres for senior citizens.
They have had to stop their domestic helpers from coming , as a result of which they are left to fend for themselves in terms of cooking and cleaning, depending upon neighbours and Good Samaritans to procure medicines and essential items for them. Ironically, the restrictions meant to ensure their safety have come at an emotional cost for thousands of the city’s 18 lakh senior citizens.
Take for example, Amar Chand, 80, who lives alone in the walled city’s Hauz Qazi. His wife died a few years back and his son lives in Uganda. “As my domestic help is unable to make it due to the lockdown, I tried cooking myself but found it physically draining. So for now I have bought ready-to-cook meals, including chapattis, but they are not good for my stomach,” says Chand.
“The bigger problem, though, is loneliness; all I can do these days is talk on the phone with my son and my friends, but that does not always help when you live alone; also, I know that if something wrong goes with me, my son would not be able to come immediately, given the lockdown.”
For 78-year-old Lakhi Ram Garg--- though he does not feel lonely as he lives with his spouse-- the lockdown has disrupted his daily routine, causing health challenges. Before social distancing became the norm, every day at 6am he would walk about three km to Hauz Khas’ Deer Park from his home in south Delhi’s Munirka, come rain or shine.
“However, I cannot go out anymore, and the lack of exercise has worsened my diabetes. In addition, we had to bar our household help from coming, and my wife and I now have to do all household chores ourselves, which is not easy at our age. The two hours I used to spend at Deer Park, where I, along with my wife, used to participate in several social and spiritual activities, helped keep boredom at bay,” says Garg. “The fact is that most senior citizens in south Delhi are lonely, as the children of most of them live abroad.”
Many seniors say the closure of the 119 Delhi government-supported recreation centres for senior citizens across the city, many of which offered facilities such as reading rooms, physiotherapy rooms and board games, has also deprived them of community spaces that served as a breather from a lonely existence at home.
Ashok Prakhabar, 80, who lives alone in Malviya Nagar, is the president of the area’s senior citizens’ welfare association. The association also ran the local Senior Citizens’ Recreation Centre, where about 100 elders would come together everyday to socialise before it closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak. “Now, all those elders are trying to keep in touch with each other through phone calls and WhatsApp messages. We have assigned a few people in the group to call a certain number of people every day. The idea is to keep everyone’s spirits high and ensure everyone is fine,” says Prabhakar. His son lives in the US, and with his domestic help on leave due to the lockdown, he has to cook and clean the house by himself.
Being more tech-savvy than others, he says, has helped him cope better. “I remain in touch with my son and daughter via Facetime. Besides , I search for information on the internet for Covid-19 and relay it on our WhatsApp group,” says Prabhakar. “I also spend a lot of time reading the Ramanaya and the Geeta. When any member of our community says they are feeling anxious, I ask them to have faith in God. Though I am used to living alone, at times I find the eerie silence on the roads outside quite disturbing.”
One of the biggest problems, says 77-year-old JR Gupta, the chairperson of the Confederation of the Senior Citizens’ Associations of Delhi, is that the seniors are facing a lot of problems in getting essential items. “We all know that social distancing is the need of the hour, but the Delhi government should ensure home delivery of essential commodities and medicines to senior citizens,” says Gupta.
According to Aruna Broota , 77, a well- known psychologist, social distancing and lockdown have created an acute sense of loneliness and insecurity among senior citizens. A lot of them, she says, are feeling physically and emotionally weak—which, she says, gives rise to acute health anxiety.
“Many of them are reflecting on the choices they made in life – whether they should have encouraged all of their children to move abroad. I keep reminding them of the advantages of technology, and how it allows them to connect with their children,” says Broota.
“I tell them about various advantages of being alone. They listen to me as the advice is coming from a mental health expert who is their age, and is facing almost the same problems as them. I do pranayam with three-four elderly people every day online and it helps them distress, because essentially what they are missing is company,” she adds.
According to psychiatrist Deepak Raheja, elders are always more resilient, and will eventually adapt better to the crisis than youngsters. And the current crisis, he says, might just change parent-child relationship for the better. “A lot of young people are realising that elderly people are particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 outbreak and are frightened by the prospect of losing their parents. They will show more compassion and empathy towards elders.”