K. JAVEED NAYEEM writes: A great deal of my work as a physician involves much interaction with elderly people especially because most of my practice revolves around diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, the inevitable bane of most people who happen to step into the wrong side of a long enough life.
With the rapid improvement that we are seeing in health care, especially over the past 50 years, life expectancy is showing an upward swing.
When you add to this the declining population of youngsters, due not only to our national policy but also because of our own personal constraints of providing well for our children, we are seeing a rapidly changing scenario of a demographic balance that seems to be tilting towards a society with a growing population of elderly people.
When you deal, like me, with problems concerning elderly people, you are bound to make some very startling and even disturbing discoveries as I recently did.
Some time ago I asked an elderly but a highly educated and very well-to-do man coming to me with complications of uncontrolled diabetes and the associated depression, why he was not able to comply with my instructions about his medications and follow-up visits.
After a moment of introspection he looked deep into my eyes with a sad smile and said:
“Doctor, my problem is not something your medicines can treat. It is far beyond their reach. My problem is of dear ones not being near and near ones not being dear.“
His reply stunned me and opened my eyes to see beyond his obvious affluence that I thought should have solved the health problems that were plaguing his life.
The man was an elderly widower whose two very caring children were both settled abroad but who had taken pains to provide him with all amenities including his own house, an efficient housekeeper, a car with a driver and a constantly replenished bank balance that should have looked after all his material needs and kept him happy.
But happiness and the drive to live seemed to be nowhere near his life.
When he had no one to share his life with, his existence seemed bereft of all meaning and purpose which left him with no point in caring for himself. Despite all our training of looking for a hidden cause behind every disease or disorder, very often we doctors tend to overlook even some very obvious causes of some very common problems.
Very often, especially in elderly patients, a medical problem does not stem just from a medical cause but originates or gets aggravated and complicated by the loneliness, boredom, sense of insecurity and depression that form a vicious circle in their lives.
That is why most elderly people who get a much greater amount of attention especially by the nurses during any hospital stays, tend to dread going back home where they can only look forward to their loneliness for company.
So, some time ago when I saw an advertisement in Star of Mysore about someone planning to start a ‘Day Care Centre’ for elderly people, like a baby-sitting arrangement for tiny tots, I was a little curious to find out more about it.
What I found out about it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was being launched as a public service venture, initially on a small experimental scale by Dr Anya, a doctor, and her husband Kulwanth Singh, a food technologist whom I have known very closely over the past 25 years.
They had always struck me as a slightly different if not odd kind of couple with a significantly greater concern for the world around them than for themselves. They have started this facility on a ‘no loss no profit’ basis at their house in Vijayanagar III Stage under the name ‘Aalana’ which in Punjabi very appropriately means a nest, especially of the weaver bird.
While some facilities do exist in Mysore by way of some old-age homes to look after the aged and infirm on a long-term if not permanent basis, the Singhs felt that there was no facility that served as a day-care centre to look after senior citizens from morning to evening on a daily basis, when their children go about their daily work.
To me it seems like a unique concept as I do not know of any such venture either here or even in any other city including Bangalore. So although it may seem like a very unusual kind of service it looks like there is a role for it which people might begin to appreciate and avail of once they come to know about it.
The Singhs plan to take about eight people under their care to start with and then expand when demand picks up.
I am told that they have been having more enquiries from people who want to know if they can leave their aged dependents with them for a few days if they have to be away from town for a weekend or for a slightly extended period and are therefore preparing themselves to provide this kind of care too.
The thought that there is a medically qualified doctor supervising their care helps to give the inmates and their family members too an enhanced sense of confidence and security as there will always be someone to guide them about their symptoms and medications.
While they can be kept occupied and free from boredom by encouraging their hobbies and interests through group activities, they can also benefit from periodic lectures and workshops about healthy and purposeful living.
In a television show which I watched about elderly people some time ago, an octogenarian said that the plight of elderly persons with no one interested in caring for them was like of the ageing bird that evokes the comment “Woh parinda jise parwaaz se fursat hee na thi, ab akela hai to hamari deevar pe aa baitha hai…” (The bird that had no time to stop soaring in the skies when young, has now chosen to perch on our house when it is aged and lonely).
A very sad reflection indeed. I hope a few more nests like ‘Aalana’ will make the evening of life more meaningful and easy for some birds whose chirping had once joyously heralded the morn.
Anya and Kulwant Singh can be contacted on mobile phone number: 94-498-55246
K. Javeed Nayeem is a practising physician who writes a weekly column in Star of Mysore, where this piece originally appeared.