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How the elderly, among the most vulnerable victims of COVID-19, are braving the pandemic

From facing their fears, dealing with anxieties in privacy, to finding joy in a pot of mint and online classes, the senior citizens in India are trying to stay hopeful are strong in the face of the unprecedented crisis

Written by Dipanita Nath |
Updated: May 15, 2021 7:58:28 pm
Illustration by Bivash Barua

After 57 years of marriage, she is newly single. Her husband died of COVID-19 in the last week of April. Her son, who was in the ICU at the time, is better now. The Pune-based senior citizen (who does not wish to be named) is aware that several members of her yoga club have also passed away. “Nobody knows who will be next, so I have started calling up everybody, whose number I have, to talk. I don’t know if I will get the chance to meet them again,” she says.

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The elderly have been among COVID-19’s most vulnerable victims since the pandemic began last year. “Older people remain more vulnerable,” said Balram Bhargava, director-general, Indian Council of Medical Research, while releasing government data on the findings of the second wave in April. He was accompanied by NITI Aayog’s VK Paul and Randeep Guleria, director, All India Institute Of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, the most senior members of the national COVID-19 task force, who said that more than 70 per cent of those hospitalised in 2020 and 2021 are above 40 years.

Most elderly people are dealing with anxieties in privacy. They do not know who to reach out to and counselling is, almost always, a delayed response in a country where mental health awareness is low. “Before the pandemic, the main complaint among senior citizens was depression. Anxiety was not as common until after last year’s lockdown, when I saw cases of senior citizens reporting anxiety escalate 25 per cent,” says Dr Kaustubh Joag, a Pune-based psychiatrist. He adds that once the current wave settles down, “we will see an added factor of grief”. Given the number of deaths, not only among relatives but also with neighbours and close friends, grieving is something that elderly patients are beginning to tackle. As they struggle to survive the brutal second wave, senior citizens are dipping into their inner reserves of resilience. The elderly from several cities spoke to us about coping with an unprecedented crisis:

Geeta Sharda Kapoor, 60, Delhi

I retired from IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open University) last year, and like everybody else, I am stuck at home. I lost my life partner in 2017. We had plans to travel to different places in India after retirement. Those dreams turned into blank walls. It was difficult for me. Hum bahut ghoomne wale hai (I’m a traveller). The house became a prison and I was sliding into depression when my children came to my rescue. My daughter has now made me an expert in WhatsApp videos and Zoom sessions, and my son gave me his old laptop. Now, it’s my whole world. I have always enjoyed working with students, addressing their problems and enabling their plans. So, I started taking online tuitions, for children from weaker sections of society, with the help of friends and other retired homemakers. Many of these underprivileged children have lost atleast one parent to COVID-19. I don’t know if I will be there tomorrow, but today is for me. Recently, three people died in my circle of friends and I was feeling quite low during the online class. The children sensed it and they suggested that we dance and it helped. The classes are a boon. I tell all adults: “Thoda sa bachpan bacha ke rakho (Keep the child in you alive).”

SRK Pillai, 91, Thiruvananthapuram

I had a heart surgery in 2010 and am still alive, without any health problem. You have to be disciplined. I wake up very early, but I sleep at 11.30 pm. I have been writing novels and articles for many years. I write from 6 to 8.30 am and exercise for half an hour. The pandemic is a once-in-an-era phenomena, and if old people are strict about rules and regulations, they don’t have to worry. During the lockdown, I started writing a novel about doctors, and explored the idea of a single medical system that combines Ayurveda, Unani, indigenous and allopathic-medicine systems. I was regional head (retired in 1987) at the song and drama division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, when Lal Bahadur Shastri was the prime minister and Indira Gandhi its minister. I have lived in different places of India and learnt many things from ordinary people. I think in a very rational way. For instance, I never accepted or gave dowry. When my daughter and son got married, I said, ‘These four children are in my protection’. I have done a lot for society and my family. If I die tomorrow, I will die happy. People, who read my stories, say, ‘You are still writing at 91?’ I tell them, ‘I am still young. My heart is not old.’

Indira Dayal, 74, Chandigarh

I never thought I was 74. It was only when I had to get my vaccination that I realised I was a senior citizen. My mother is 96 and bedridden, and I take care of her. The major lesson we have learnt during the pandemic is self-care. When I see people trudging off to the bank or crowded markets, I am afraid for them – they are exposing themselves to a contact-driven, contagious infection. We used to live in Mumbai, where I completed a PhD in ancient Indian culture, from Mumbai university, and came to Chandigarh in 2002. My husband was working in Siemens Mumbai then. We chose to retire in Chandigarh but now, news from Delhi is devastating. I have stopped reading the newspaper. When the reality gets too much, I turn to gardening. Besides making us aware of where our food comes from – something that the lockdown taught us – there is nothing like growing some mint in a pot to change your mood. I think everybody should do it. It is important to be aware that we have been given the gift of time, to pursue interests that we did not find time for earlier. This is the positive side of the pandemic – the chance to find personal joy.

Mohini Kaushik, 55, & RS Kaushik, 65, Lucknow

My husband has Alzheimer’s, and the severity of his condition will only increase. He knows everything about the coronavirus and that five people in the neighbourhood have died. According to him, “whatever will happen, will happen”, but, he’s totally dependent on me. If he doesn’t see me, he feels scared and asks, “Kahan chali gayi (where did you go)?”. We don’t have any children, only a caretaker. The last time we stepped out was when my father, a doctor in Assam, was visiting us in early March. As the pandemic becomes severe, I have to make my husband understand that this is not the right time to go out because his immunity is lower than most others and he also has a pacemaker. I am a psychology graduate, and to keep my husband’s mind occupied, I talk to him all the time, from morning to when he falls asleep. He responds with people he had worked with and incidents he is forgetting. I have decided to turn our house, called Parijat, into a care home for senior citizens who are suffering from various illnesses, including COVID-19. My advice to people is: “Why lose your smile? Look at the mirror, see your face and smile. Also, think of the people who are less fortunate than you and be thankful for what you have.”

Satish Anand, 74, Delhi

My entire family is suffering from COVID-19. My wife and I had taken the vaccine, yet we are ill. A lot of our close relatives have died, including two brothers who passed away in a span of two hours of each other. My brother-in-law and niece have died. So, I was frightened when we were positive. But, we pulled ourselves together and said, ‘We will win this. We are senior citizens, which means that we have overcome so many challenges and illnesses, and we will overcome this, as well”. I am a theatre performer and my years on the stage have given me the strength to confront difficulties. We are in home isolation and following whatever the doctor has said, including exercise and pranayam. The doctor says we have to stay mentally strong. We can fight this only if we stay together and help one another. The things we are hearing about the black market in oxygen cylinders and medicines make me sad. If a person becomes the cause of death for another person, isn’t that an inhuman thing? Calamity can befall anybody. Do they think the coronavirus will spare them? They should know that all the money and material comforts are only important if you are alive. If you do not have life, everything ends. Zindagi badi khoobsurat hai. Zindagi ko bachana bahut zaroori hai (Life is beautiful. It’s important to save life).

SM, 87, Durgapur

I stay at home all the time, alone, since it is not wise to keep a help. All my life, I have been the sort of person who is easily frightened. The virus terrifies me in how it strips people of their humanity. I have heard that the condition in India is very bad, especially West Bengal. In Delhi, people cannot even get a decent burial. I wonder who will take me to a hospital if I fall ill. I went to get vaccinated but the centre was so crowded that I returned. I don’t go for evening walks anymore. The neighbourhood boys bring me groceries. I fill my days with memories of my old family house in Kolkata that is empty and dusty; nobody lives there. After my husband retired from the Durgapur Steel Plant, we decided to stay on here and not move back to Kolkata. This was where we had friends and a support system, but most of our contemporaries have passed away or moved in with their children. My brothers live in a different part of Bengal but I can’t meet them. Being separated from my family, coupled with the news of the virus, makes me panic. When the anxiety gets too much, I leave it in god’s hands. What else can we do?

Raja Lakshmi, 85, Chennai

We are not allowed to go out and nobody is allowed to come in. Even at the home (Vishranthi Home for Aged Destitute Women in Palavakkam), we have to stand far from one another. Last year, many of us tested positive and were admitted to a hospital. I was there for 15 days, while another inmate Mary Pushpam, 71, was unconscious for 10 days. They said she will not make it, but she fought the disease. When she recovered, she composed a song for her hospital caretaker. We hope we do not get infected a second time. Even those who did not get it last year, like Arundhati, 84, are worried about the second wave. We are given healthy immunity-building food, and have to wash our hands six times a day. At group prayers, we pray for the world and the home. We want the coronavirus to go away. I want the world to know that, from an old age home in Chennai, we are blessing everybody. Ashirwadam.

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