This golden brigade turns caregiver for silver-haired

NEW DELHI: Sundera Gopalan is a superhero of sorts to seniors. She’s no caped crusader, but when this 76-year-old grandma receives a distress signal – which in this case comes as a feeble cry for help from a lonely, sometimes suicidal, senior citizen at the other end of the phone – she swoops in, pallu pinned, to save the day.

“I don’t do anything dramatic. I just engage in a conversation, crack a few jokes or take them for a walk in the park. And then I do it again. Twice a week at least for months, until they feel alive again,” says Sundera, who volunteers as a senior helping other seniors at the Dignity Foundation in Chennai, an organisation helping the elderly lead active lives.

“Loneliness is a killer. I was at that point in life when my husband died. So, I can relate to seniors who feel alone. I know how to help them look forward to life again, a happier one,” she says.

With International Day for Older Persons coming up on October 1, it’s interesting to see that several golden agers like Sundera are taking it upon themselves to help out their own. They volunteer at old age homes, elder care centres and hospitals, either on a structured basis or when the opportunity arises.

In the case of 85-year-old Vedavalli Srinivasagopalan, it’s whenever she flies in from the US to visit her daughter. Vedavalli spends her day stitching pouches, handbags and handkerchiefs, which she sells to friends and neighbours, donating the proceeds to old-age homes. Once she starts, she won’t stop, says her daughter Krishnaveni. “We worry about her straining herself, but she insists on helping as many people as she can,” she says.

For five years now, Chennai-based Udhavi, an organisation that assists elders, has been working with a group of volunteers, most of who are in their 70s, to help other seniors with everything from a walk on the beach to a temple visit, assistance at the bank, sabha hopping or a shopping spree. Says cookbook author Sabita Radhakrishna, also the founder of Udhavi, and 75 years old herself, “The idea is to help them with day-to-day activities as well as stave off loneliness. We do whatever it takes from taking them out to restaurants to arranging for meetings between elders from the same community,” says Radhakrishna.

According to Population Census 2011, there are nearly 104 million elderly people (aged 60 years or above) in India, of which 63% live below the poverty line. Tamil Nadu is home to 11.2% of India’s elderly population. A report released by the United Nations Population Fund and HelpAge India says that the number of elderly people is expected to grow to 173 million in another eight years, and to 20% of the total population by 2050.

“When you have two people of relatively the same age, there is a synergy in their interaction, which promotes a sense of wellbeing in both the caregiver and the recipient,” says psychiatrist Dr R Padmavati of the Schizophrenic Research Foundation.

Past research, such as one done in 2013 by the department of psychology, Boise State University, USA, suggests that the physical and mental health of senior citizens, and as a result their quality of life, improved when they volunteered. Another 2014 study by Baycrest Health Sciences in Canada and published online in ‘Psychological Bulletin’, found that older adults who stayed active by volunteering showed better overall health.

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