Family for hire: Old and lonely? Here’s company, and help, you can get for a fee
New companionship services offer to take seniors for walks, go with them to events, or just send someone over to talk.
As families go nuclear, paid non-medical care is becoming a reality for many senior citizens in their twilight years in many Indian cities.
Across Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad, companies like Aaji Care are offering non-medical senior care. Once a senior citizen signs up, a volunteer will come over once every few days and just talk to him or her, take the person to a wedding or party or to the doctor, go to the bank or shop for groceries so he/she doesn’t have to go alone. Often, they just read to the senior citizen, play puzzles or board games, help the client pass time.
But it takes time getting used to volunteer care. “We are still coming to terms with a concept as new as this,” admits Subhadra Upadhyay, 88, whose son signed her up with The Family Member in Ahmedabad four months ago. “But we had to be practical, because Bhavesh has his own family to take care of,” she adds.
Subhadra has a weak heart and a fractured foot that has left her partially immobile, which makes it difficult for her to accompany her son and daughter-in-law to family events or on holidays. Often, they would have to cancel, or at least one of them stay home with her, she says.
Now, she stays back with company from The Family Member.
“Initially, we were scared about having a stranger in our home,” says Bhavesh, 45, an IT executive. “But the volunteers are very professional — and details about them, including a police verification certificate, are sent to us in advance.”
The volunteers keep her company, watch Hindi soaps and religious shows with her, read to her, or just chat about this and that.
She’s begun going for her doctor-recommended walks much more often.
Initially, she would feel bad about having to pay someone to keep her company.
“But now the volunteers are like my kids,” she says. “Having new people also means my stories never get old, and I get to hear new stories too.”
But it’s not always the young ones reaching out. Usha Arvindan, 70, contacted The Family Member in Ahmedabad because she wanted to have someone home with her ailing and diabetic husband, while she went out to meet friends or attend pujas. “I realised I was becoming asocial and giving up on everything I wanted to do,” she says.
“I like that we are old and not dependent on each other or anyone else,” says her husband, Arvindan Vyasa, 75.
Prices range from Rs 150 for 1.5 hours to Rs 20,000 a month for multiple weekly visits and help with errands.
“We’re less than a year old and already have about 25 clients and eight volunteers,” says TFM founder Piyush Vayeda. “It’s been a success,” says Prasad Bhide, who set up Mumbai-based Aaji Care in 2012. “We get at least three new clients every month and are planning to expand to Pune.” There’s also Samvedna Senior Care, set up in Delhi in 2013, and First Seniors set up in 2008; in Pune, Maya Care was launched in 2009.
“We aim to keep seniors independent,” says Pratyusha Pinnali, head of marketing for Maya Care. “We also try and fill in for their children to keep their loneliness at bay.” All volunteers are cleared after police verification; details are sent to the subscriber in advance.
Care givers acknowledge that there is really no substitute for family. “Seniors don’t always understand why their own family can’t be there for them,” says Archana Sharma, founder of Samvedna.
‘SHE HELPS KEEP MY LONELINESS AWAY’
Eighty-year-old Mumbai resident Chhaya Patil waits for Nutan every afternoon.
“She is just like my granddaughter,” says Patil, a retired clerk with the Mumbai Port Trust. She is a widow and her three daughters lived in not far from her home.
Nutan Ghag is a 20-year-old college student who works part-time with Mumbai-based Aaji Care, an organisation that offers monthly companionship packages for senior citizens.
She has been visiting Patil for eight months, for four hours a day — half of which is spent solving puzzles and reading. “The astrology page is our favourite one in the newspaper,” Patil says.
At 5 pm, they go for a walk either to the market or to the Dadar beach nearby. Patil then takes her afternoon nap while Ghag finishes college assignments or reads a book from the older woman’s collection.
“It works both ways. My parents don’t live in the city, but with Aaji around, I don’t feel so alone. And with me around, her three daughters can work stress-free,” says Ghag.
Patil says she likes that there is somebody as young as Ghag to help her with decision-making. “Young minds have fresh perspective. Sometimes I agree, otherwise we take the middle path,” she laughs. “I would encourage more services like these to come up, where the young can volunteer and seniors get a new lease of life.”
Ghag gets Rs 4,000 a month for her service. “It helps me pay my rent and meet college expenses,” she says. “But I don’t do it for the money. In fact, I sometimes cancel plans to spend more time with Aaji. She teaches me a lot and I know I am making memories that will last a lifetime.” For Patil, Ghag is now family. “She helps keep my loneliness away,” she says.
‘YOU CAN’T PUT A PRICE ON GOOD COMPANY’
In Gurgaon, advancing age forced a free spirited Bhagyalata Dasto reach out for help.
A retired lawyer and mother of three, she was born with a shrunken right arm, and at 52, a road accident left her confined to a wheelchair.
“My passion is knitting,” she says. “And I realise that my son and daughter-in-law cannot sit here and go through patterns with me or keep me occupied.”
They both run their own business; her other children are in Bangalore and London.
So, three years ago, the 72-year-old decided to sign up with Samvedna to have someone come over and keep her company for a few hours a week. The cost ranges from Rs 13,000 to Rs 20,000 a month.
“Though she has been an independent woman all her life, she now feels the need for some company as she is ageing,” says Asheem Rath, her son.
Four times a week, Das and her companion read together, play board games, watch funny YouTube videos or surf the internet for knitting designs.
‘LIKE HAVING A FAMILY MEMBER IN THE HOUSE’
In Pune, Professor Sudhakar Kulkarni, 74, who has been blind for 30 years and lives alone, now depends on volunteers of Maya Care for company five days a week.
The volunteers read newspapers and magazines to him, engage in discussions and debates, help him make calls to relatives and friends; once a week, a volunteer accompanies him to his son’s house nearby. Twice a week, they help him buy groceries, do bank work or run other errands.
Kulkarni is also a trained classical vocalist and volunteers have sometimes walked in while he was practicing. “They love my singing so much that they don’t disturb me till the song is over,” he says, laughing.
It’s like having a family member in the house, Kulkarni says.
“Today, you can’t expect relatives to help you. Everyone’s busy and nobody lives together,” he adds. “It helps that these volunteers are learned, some even well-established and from good households. I don’t have to be wary of letting them in.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A SENIOR CARE VOLUNTEER
So, what is it like to be a volunteer?
“It can be rewarding, but also emotionally draining,” says Vikas Gambhir.
It’s been a few months since Gambhir’s mother died; he was 30 when he lost his father. “You can never replace parents, but you can create memories with people like them,” he says. That’s what prompted the 53-year-old banker to volunteer with First Seniors in Delhi.
“Volunteering is emotionally satisfying, as long as you learn to disconnect,” he says.