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How covid-19 changed the lives of the elderly

The pandemic has forced Indians to confront the challenges of their ageing citizens in ways they had never quite reckoned with before

Ageing came to India before development. Western countries developed first and then longevity came.
Ageing came to India before development. Western countries developed first and then longevity came. (Getty Images)

My mother’s covid-19 vaccination jab picture caused ripples in our family and friends WhatsApp groups.

“Wow!” said my aunt. “Her mask matches her sari!”

As it happens, that was purely accidental. My mother has just one mask. But it was also true that she had picked out her “vaccination sari”, a simple green and white cotton one, the night before. We joked that she had been making a sari shortlist for days for the momentous occasion.

It was not momentous just because she was getting her first dose of the vaccine. It was also her first trip out of the house since the beginning of the pandemic. She was almost as nervous about that as about getting the jab.

The vaccination centres were Petri dishes of elderly confusion. To their credit, the staff were helpful and accommodating but it was not always easy as hard-of-hearing elders stared at them quizzically, nodding uncertainly, catching six words in ten. People wandered up to the vaccination queue instead of going to the payment counter first, causing traffic chaos. Elderly couples squabbled as they jabbed at their phones trying to find their appointment text messages. One lady wondered after her shot whether they could go somewhere else on the way back. “No, we are going straight home,” retorted her daughter. “This is not an outing!” “But I thought since we were out anyway…,” said the mother, a bit wistfully.

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I could relate to the feeling. It might be just a vaccination centre but it was an outing of sorts.

Covid-19 has forced us to confront the challenges of ageing seniors in ways we had never quite reckoned. A friend who lives in the US says he had always taken it for granted that he would just be able to fly to India if there was a parental emergency . The pandemic made him realise that just having the means to fly at a moment’s notice did not mean he would be able to do so.

S. Irudaya Rajan, professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala, once told me that we are having to make up the rules as we grapple with the challenges of an ageing population and increasing life spans. He said that while the market for cataract surgeries had exploded, he felt the hearing aid market was relatively untapped. “I asked one daughter-in-law. She says it’s good for us. Otherwise, the household will be like the Ramayan-Mahabharat war all the time. Now I can say anything and my mother-in-law can’t hear. That’s good. But I want her eyes to be clear. So she can look after my baby.”

Prof. Rajan was only half-joking. The challenges thrown up by the pandemic have made me understand more fully what Indira Jaiprakash, a gerontologist in Bengaluru, had meant when she said: “Ageing came to India before development. Western countries developed first and then longevity came.” It means we didn’t have the time to ramp up infrastructure. We certainly didn’t contemplate a situation where hundreds of thousands of elderly people, many living far away from their children, would need to go out of their homes and navigate the hospital system to get a vaccine twice over.

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As we mulled vaccination centre options for my mother, we had to think not about Covaxin vs Covishield but about the sheer logistics of it all—how far we would have to go, how much she would have to walk, whether there would be steps.

But it’s also true that our vaccination story is proceeding much more smoothly than in much of Europe and the US, where the elderly struggle to even get an appointment.

The pandemic has thrown up more than an infrastructure challenge. The elderly, says Prof. Rajan, grapple with a host of ailments that will not pause because of covid-19. “Kerala has done a reasonably good job with things like food and pensions,” he says. “But we are not talking about their mental health.”

The lives of the elderly are circumscribed in any case, says Prof. Rajan. “You could go to the temple but then the temple was closed. During daytime, you used to be the only person at home. You could sit and cry if you wanted to or watch TV. But now suddenly everyone is at home. In some families, that might be a good thing. In other families, not so much. The decision to not let the elderly go out (even if it’s for their own good) has created mental health issues we are not talking about.”

We are not talking about it because we are just not used to talking about these things. But that anxiety has been the elephant in our living rooms for over a year now. We scrub our hands and sanitise desperately not just because we fear the virus for ourselves but because we dread bringing it home to loved ones. It is a fear we cannot articulate because we can barely acknowledge it ourselves. Last June, in an online session for the Kolkata Literary Meet, the Canadian author Yann Martel said he worried about what would happen if his parents, who lived 2,000 miles away, contracted the virus. “My parents, who have loved me for a lifetime, could die entirely alone. The terrifying thing I find about this illness is that you not only can die or at the very least suffer but you must do it alone.”

Early in the pandemic, I came across the story of Francene Bailey, whose mother died from the virus. “They kept telling me it’s not my fault, and I would give anything to believe that,” Bailey said. “The doctor called after my mom went to the hospital and said: ‘Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong.’ The pastor said basically the same thing at her funeral. ‘Let it go. You had nothing to do with this.’” But Bailey could not let it go. “(The virus) has to come from somebody, and this time I know it came from me…. I got sick and then she got sick. I lived and she died. How am I supposed to let go of that?”

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Mirroring this anxiety is the mental health strain the elderly themselves feel. Sonali Gupta, a psychologist in Mumbai and author of Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear, says she has elderly clients who chafe at over-protective children, often living in another city, who scold them every time they take a 15-minute walk. They say the children don’t understand how claustrophobic their lives feel. But Gupta says she was most shaken when an 80-year-old client with whom she was doing FaceTime and Skype therapy sessions told her, “Maybe I will never be able to see you in person again, Sonali.” For Gupta, it hit home that while she could envision her own life returning to normal in a year or two, many people like her client were acutely aware they only had limited time. They knew, whether they admitted it aloud or not, that that trip to visit the grandchildren in New Jersey, cancelled because of the pandemic, might just never happen.

We will not go back immediately to a pre-covid world even after the second jab but it does give us an inkling of some light at the end of this dreary tunnel. As we left the vaccination centre, I understood why so many people were excitedly sharing pictures of their parents getting their shots. It felt, in some ways, as if we had been collectively holding our breath for over a year. Now we could finally dare to exhale a bit.

My mother was amused by the flurry of messages about her matching mask and sari. It has upped the fashion ante for Jab 2. I don’t know what sari she will wear but I am sure it won’t be the same one. I am also sure she will add a splash of her carefully rationed special-occasion Chanel No.5 perfume because after a year of cabin fever, even a visit to a clinic feels Chanel Five-worthy.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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