Loneliness can be killing for the elderly

It was the stench that neighbours could not ignore. No one had seen Saraswati, 60, for the past few days but none had given it any thought.

india Updated: Feb 02, 2004 01:07 IST

It was the stench that neighbours could not ignore. No one had seen Saraswati, 60, for the past few days but none had given it any thought. It was only when the smell became intolerable that the police were called in. Saraswati was found hanging in her Niti Bagh home, and the unopened newspapers lying at her doorstep suggested that she had committed suicide three days ago. Sixty-year-old Saraswati had been living alone ever since her advocate husband died in 1990 and 14 years of loneliness is perhaps all that she could handle.

The increasing grey population of the city is easy prey to not just robbers and murderers, but also to the demons inside their own heads — depression arising out of isolated living.

The office of Helpage, an NGO that has been working on issues concerning the elderly for several years now, often gets calls from elderly people who only want to hear the voice of another human being. With urban living going nuclear, families now have little place for grandparents, forcing them to live alone. The South District police have identified 1,300 such senior citizens who are living alone.

DCP (South) Vivek Gogia says the exercise was undertaken to size up the number of senior citizens who may be potential victims of crime. But during the exercise, the police found themselves getting the cold shoulder. They discovered that before they could take care of the physical security of the elderly, they would have to ensure their emotional well being.

And so was born the unique Gau Dhuli programme. Involving 40 class 9 and 11 student volunteers from DPS, Mathura Road, the pilot project adopted 150 senior citizens living alone. Weekly visits by groups of students over the past six months are yielding positive results. This programme of providing emotional sustenance to the elderly is going to be replicated all over the city.

But the issues of urban loneliness go deeper. A recent study showed eight per cent of senior citizens polled felt no one even knew that they existed. An elderly couple in Punjabi Bagh were found dead in their home a few years ago. The post mortem revealed that the retired ACP and his wife, whose children were settled abroad, had died of starvation — their stomachs were empty and their kitchen was bare. Despite the dollars coming in from their children, the couple had no one who could go and buy them food.

And while something is better than nothing, just waiting for a weekly or bi-weekly visit by some schoolchildren is perhaps not the only solution. With the government too preoccupied with issues like food, pensions, housing and healthcare, emotional well-being of the elderly is not a priority.

The old adage of an empty mind being the devil’s workshop applies to the elderly as well. Psychiatrists warn depression will creep in if you have nothing to do. Loneliness can be kept at bay by planning your day. Have a routine and include people in it.

If you enjoy walking, create a morning walkers’ club. If you like children, schedule your evening walk to include some time in the colony park with children. Or do a favour to your neighbours and offer to escort their kids to and from the school bus stop in the morning and afternoon.

Old age and loneliness are issues no one thinks about while they are young and surrounded by people. But in the race to get ahead and stay ahead, most people forget about relationships that go beyond work places. You may get to the top of the rat pack but including friends in your schedule is something no secretary will remind you about.

Among the most common reasons for the isolation of the elderly is money. If parents are financially dependent on their children, they will soon be treated like a burden. It is most important to maintain one's financial independence. Plan for your old age while you are young.

First Published: Jan 26, 2004 01:07 IST