In the still of the night, Mum lay sleepless on the hospital bed, craning her neck to the extreme right so she could peek through the narrow gap in the curtain and perhaps find some solace in the cuckoo chirping outside the window. The bird call was momentarily drowned out by the shrill siren of an ambulance, making her sigh and mutter, “That was the sixth one in the entire day”.
A month after recovering from the coronavirus, the 77-year old suffered a fall and was taken to the operating table for hip surgery. Struggling to sit up and re-adjust the cold pack at the painful hip, Mum allowed a silent tear, and fell back on the bed, frustrated and tired. She pressed the button for a sleepy attendant at 4 am. It’s a long road to recovery.
In Mumbai, a distant 80-year old aunt who stays alone is further locked in when kind neighbours, who are too polite to refuse point-blank, make excuses to avoid taking her for hospital visits. Appointments with the skin specialist have been postponed and consultations with the general practitioner via video calls are simply not her cup of tea. Daily meals have been reduced to bread and butter sandwiches and making soup with shaky hands.
Back in Pune, a close relative lost her father to a lung infection but they never tested for COVID-19. Who knows, the 84-year-old man may have been infected as Pune district is by far the worst affected in the country. The forecast for the coming months does not look bright and instances of how the COVID-19 pandemic has isolated those who are already lonely are far too many to be narrated.
Yet, what the pandemic has also done is to make the older adults a lot more visible and ensure that healthy ageing stays high on the agenda of state governments. It has shown that a majority of people who age healthily are less at risk and reports of centenarians surviving the disease present a silver lining.
A new Lancet report has advocated focussed investment on improving physical activity and healthy diets as it finds that the risk of dying prematurely from preventable and largely treatable chronic diseases such as stroke, heart disease and stomach cancer has declined steadily over the past decade. Death rates from other chronic diseases such as diabetes, lung cancer, colon cancer and liver cancer are declining slowly in many countries, according to the report.
So, while India needs to shape up to meet the Sustainable Development Goal target of 30 per cent reduction in non-communicable disease mortality by 2030, the country also has to deal with an increasing share of older persons. According to the Census 2011, there are nearly 104 million elderly persons — aged 60 and above — in India. A United Nations Population Fund and HelpAge India report suggests that the number of elderly persons is set to increase to 173 million by 2026 while another UN report has projected a 20 per cent increase in the share of older persons in 2050.
“The quality of life is more important than an increasing life-span,” says 80-year old V S Natarajan, often known as the father of geriatric medicine in India. He is worried that people are living longer due to advances in medical treatment but are not a part of the healthy ageing process. To prove that age is just a number, some older adults take up adventure activities ranging from skydiving to cycling long distances. But for many, inadequate medical care, lack of finances and social support has tested their resilience.
A retired doctor, Natarajan’s mantra has been to remain active and one can find him visiting small towns and villages, talking to people about periodic health check-ups, interacting with school children and engaging them with WHO’s programme that focuses on respecting the rights of elders and treating them with dignity.
The 73rd World Health Assembly has endorsed a proposal for a Decade of Healthy Ageing (2020-2030) and experts say this decade of concerted global action is urgently needed. With more than one billion people worldwide aged 60 or above — and most living in low and middle-income countries — many do not have access to even the basic resources necessary for a life of meaning and dignity. From fixing their daily meals to dealing with the social distances created by COVID-19, the pandemic has driven home the sorry plight of older people. With anxiety and fear of illness on the top of minds, a huge push needs to be urgently given to encourage healthy aging.
A close friend has just completed the final rites of his mother who died of cancer. A Goa-based colleague has seen her own parents struggle and exchanging notes during this pandemic there is a strong desire to just make them smile. While babysitting my 77-year-old mother, styling her hair in two schoolgirl plaits and reading aloud her favourite Marathi authors hoping it would help regain her strength back, I also decide to pluck an eyelash, place it on the back of my hand and wish that a caring relative can cheer up the 80-year-old aunt.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 9, 2020 under the title ‘Age isn’t just a number’. firstname.lastname@example.org