Draped in a beautiful black-and-grey cotton saree, Vinatha Iyengar, 68, walks into Nightingales Elders’ Enrichment Centre (NEEC) at Malleswaram to attend a talk on ayurveda. Her grace is arresting and voice resonates with confidence as she reels off botanical names of medicinal plants. She has doubts, arguments, and also visible concern about the dwindling medicinal varieties.
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But it was the same woman ravaged by depression following her husband’s death three years ago. A homeopath and acupuncturist, she used to be a recluse even amidst company. Quite the contrary, now she is a sought-after orator on “complementary” medicine. Yes, she corrects when her friend and behavioural scientist Bharat Candade, 63, calls it “alternative”.
“I used to sit here like a zombie and people used to gently tease me so that I utter a few words. What I need most here is the support group – it means a lot to meet people who are sailing in the same boat.”
As Vinatha talks about her friends and the fun and frolic she needs to keep ticking, you begin to understand the difference between growing up and growing old. And in her case, both seem to be happening simultaneously. Regardless of the creeping years, second blooming, after all, is a possible feat.
The root of old-age problems
Modern medicine has ushered in a lot of positives for senior citizens: instant pain relief, cure for some illnesses, and longevity of life. But, loads of loneliness too.
With many joint families breaking into nuclear families, pressures of the push-button civilisation relegating all important familial concerns to background, and lack of efficient geriatric healthcare even in metros like Bangalore, senior citizens are grappling with a frightening scenario. It is a city where a majority of the elderly has to fend for itself, has no one to assist in times of distress, and has to put up with the notion that nothing can help these ‘spent forces’ beyond a point.
“NEEC is my best post-retirement gift. You don’t know how a few friends who match your interests and wavelength can transform you. A whole new life opens up before you.”
But when I stepped into NEEC, it seemed as though old age was the least of concerns among its members – something that had actually fetched them in here. Leave aside a few telltale signs like wrinkles, gnarled hands, bent back, monkey caps and walking sticks, they were brimming with a fresh sap of ideas and busy discussing forthcoming activities. Evidently, it wasn’t about capacity to do things alone but also about appetite for doing things.
Set up in 1999 by Dr Radha Murthy, managing trustee of Nightingales Medical Trust (NMT), NEEC aims at enriching the lives of senior citizens physically, emotionally and socially. Although the target is middle-class, its 430+ registered members come from all walks of life. Apart from medical checkups, lab investigation, wound care, ECG, and other support, the members receive regular counselling on the changing environment and its challenges.
Memory exercises, physiotherapy and fitness programmes are designed to keep them physically and mentally active. That apart, a total day-care package offers a short-term stay for those whose family members are away. Nestling amidst greenery, the centre buzzes with recreational, cultural, creative, and social activities. For more details, click here.
Dr Murthy reasons that old-age homes are sprouting because senior citizens stay alone and feel lonely with no one to care for them. “If they have quality healthcare at their doorstep 24×7 and some constructive activities and fitness programmes to keep them active, I don’t see why problems related to old age can’t be dealt with.”
A viable alternative
Programme Manager Swati Bhandary says it was a slow process with less than 10 members trickling in initially. Since the concept was new and unheard of, there was a stigma attached to such initiatives a decade ago. It called for nothing less than a radical change in the mindset.
In this secular set-up, she adds, boundaries merge instantly. Members design the programmes themselves; the five-member staff and five-six dedicated volunteers hardly interfere. However, despite the popularity, NMT hasn’t been able to replicate the concept elsewhere in the city because of the overheads weighing it down as it charges only Rs 150 per month. Hence, 95 per cent of its members are from Malleswaram; which, incidentally, has a sizeable senior citizen population.
Age not a barrier
One of the oldest members T V Jagadisan, 83, former MD of Monsanto, now a quiz master of sorts, has been here since its inception. He now lives alone in Malleswaram as his NRI son is in Canada. His recent talk opposing Bt brinjal was a super-hit. “I love to share my thoughts and ideas…. Now I have time to do things I could never do before.”
Gunnu Talgery, 72, was a globe-trotting mechanical engineer and is now living with his wife in Malleswaram who is also a member. Known for his talks peppered with wisecracks, he says he was actually late to walk in here because he thought only some “helpless old people” gather here and didn’t want to “feel that old”. “NEEC is my best post-retirement gift. You don’t know how a few friends who match your interests and wavelength can transform you. A whole new life opens up before you.”
His NRI son and Hyderabad-based daughter are happy to know that their parents are not alone but are constructively busy. “Most of the old age problems stem from loneliness. It’s hard for people who have lost their spouses. Your spouse is a crutch you take for granted and realise its value only after you lose it.”
Concurring with Vinatha that he gets back more than he gives to NEEC, the gentleman rode off on his bike to come back prepared for his next talk – “Something to look forward to”.