We are all ageing. Age is an opportunity and not something that we should deny or can prevent. As we embrace ageing, there are many things we can learn, appreciate and share about our lives and life experiences. Many senior citizens have substantial amounts of health and vigour and may have more free time than younger people. However, despite their capacity, they may be discouraged from active engagement in community life through informal barriers such as ageist attitudes.
Age-based stereotypes or ageist attitudes also influence whether a person’s talents, contributions and feelings are acknowledged. It has been shown that the stereotypes people hold of senior citizens influence how we talk to them or seek their consultation in important matters. Stereotypes are defined as oversimplified, exaggerated beliefs about a group or category of people. Stereotypes may be positive or negative, but they are nearly always distortions of fact. Many stereotypes or myths surround senior citizens and the ageing process. The basic question is why is engagement with Senior Citizens important?
Everyone has the right to live and express with dignity. Younger crop should bear this in their mind that these rights do not diminish as people age. This includes the right to participation, to have one’s views sought and valued, to make decisions and have a say in decision-making. Engaging with senior citizens can help to dispel myths and stereotypes associated with the ageing process.
The community as a whole also benefits from engagement with senior citizens. We shall share a case study of how a 63-Year-Old retired mathematics teacher Alka is transforming the face of her hometown in Goa. It is not unusual to see garbage heaps near our homes, people throwing litter on the roads, and trees dying for lack of care and nourishment. We just complain about the lack of civic sense and move on. But one senior citizen lady in Goa decided to act ensuring that the community around her becomes better, safer and cleaner again. She started with a small initiative to develop her hometown of Vasco in Goa. Her initiative is now a path setter for others to tread. We often blame the government and municipal corporation for everything. We hold the opinion they are the only ones responsible for the mess around us. The bitter truth is we all are equally responsible for the problems we create.
A local business unit was so impressed by Alka’s work that it invited her for a discussion on how the local community could be roped to bring a sustainable change in Vasco. This gave Alka the boost she needed to ignite an initiative for the holistic development of her locality and involve several NGO as well. Alka gathered a few volunteers for assistance and took on the onerous task of clearing garbage near a hospital. She faced a lot of challenges from different quarters but she did not succumb. After six months, the job was complete. Alka and her dedicated team started painting walls in the locality to discourage public urination. She painted the walls white instead of making any pattern on them. If something appears so clean and white, people tend to be resistant to spoiling it and this actually worked.
When Alka saw the pitiable state of the vegetable market, she mounted garbage bins near the vendor stalls. She also started a tree plantation drive in a nearby park and asked community members to adopt the 30 trees that were planted. Planting is easy but sustaining the plants is difficult especially in the dry climate. So she asked the community members to start pouring whatever little water they could on those plants. She visualised them to grow from a sapling to a shady chinar for future generations. This exercise picked up really well. Once her efforts started to pay dividends, many senior citizens in the locality got in touch with her, asking if they could be of any help. So, she started a 50+ group to bring the senior citizens together, and got 35 members on board to engage in various community building activities. Though her journey has not been so easy, Alka has been tirelessly striving to bring social metamorphosis and spread awareness.
Let us share another case study. In order to efface loneliness from the lives of elderly women around her, as well as to make their days productive, the retired Hindi teacher Thankamma decided to modify her 200-year-old ancestral home into a daycare centre for senior citizens. She says the idea was to provide companionship, engage senior citizens in interesting activities to maintain their health. The thought was supported by Thankamma’s children working abroad. They contributed to the renovation of the home and assisted their mother in creating awareness among the senior citizens about this great initiative. It was on her 84th birthday that the daycare was inaugurated. The employees here make candle lights, incense sticks, paper bags, detergents and cleaning lotion. The products made are sold via a grocery shop near the daycare centre and the income is fully used to keep the place running.
A day in the lives of the inmates at a day care centre starts at 8 am when they are picked up from their houses by the day care’s vehicle. After a secular prayer, the women move in for a meditation and yoga session followed by newspaper reading and breakfast. They can engage in the packing of candles, incense sticks or detergent as per their choice. Others can engage in conversations, reading, farming or co-curricular activities. They are taken back to their respective homes by 5 pm after an evening walk and tea together. In order to ensure the health of the inmates a health clinic and laboratory has been set up there. A doctor, a nurse, and a lab technician are available during the day.
Thankamma notes, “I have always felt a sense of responsibility to give back to the society that taught many things to me. Also, spending time with these senior citizens brings me unmatched joy and peace of mind. I also owe a lot to the young crop who help us in running the home efficiently. Thankamma also hopes to promote a sustainable ecosystem by making cloth bags at her daycare centre and help people make a habit of using this alternative of polythene. She has an unpunctuated belief that it is never too late to start something new, a venture or a habit. She defines, “Education teaches us with what little we can manage our life and make judicious use of resources”
Dr Zubair Saleem is a Senior Geriatric Consultant and Dr Showkat Rashid Wani is Senior Coordinator Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir