Old and alone

Senior citizens, who normally have a good support system in the villages, find them isolated during illness, unable to enjoy the comforts of family life

In June, when Shanti, 72, fell ill, her greatest fear that nobody would visit her was coming true. Except her family, no outsider was visiting her. She felt that everyone was disgusted with her, even her family members, as she was repeatedly asked to keep her hands clean by washing with soap.

She got ulcers in her mouth that caused a high fever. The doctor, however, advised her that there is no need to worry but maintain social distancing and wear a mask. The question that was troubling her: Why everyone is not willing to see her? Even her great grandson, two months old, was kept away. She asked everyone, has she got the disease ? Even when everyone denied, she would start crying. In the next few days when she started to recover, she learned that she was not infected with this notorious disease.

Even when she was ill, her two friends — Pukkho, 80 and Puspa, who is in her late sixties — visited her and cared for her needs. Covid-19 has changed a lot for these women from a small village called Piparghar of Madhya Pradesh. On normal days, all three would sit together discussing everything happening in the village but not this time, even though the auspicious month of Sawaan has begun.

A season of glee, this is when young women and children sing and dance and also swing on makeshift jhulas (swings) on a banyan tree. This year, the cheer is missing. Everyone is cautious, even their family members have advised them not to venture out. They feel trapped at home and visit each other once in a while, especially when someone is in need like Shanti.

Pukkho remembers her uncle, who died when her village was in the clutches of Marai — a word implying a pandemic outbreak. “My father told me that his brother died during Marai. A lot of people died, I heard even cattles were not spared.” she said. She thinks that Marai is now being repeated. But she is not worried at all, she thinks that she might die sooner or later but if she can’t see her friends and relatives in the last days of her life, she will be disappointed.

Despite all the advisories about cleanliness — washing hands, wearing a mask — that message failed to reach villages in successful ways. Cleanliness is associated with certain castes and ages, therefore for these three women the greatest fear is isolation. For Pukkho, who is an OBC and lives close to Scheduled Caste communities, that fear is relatively high. This is why she keeps visiting Shanti and Puspa, so that at least they would stay with her in the time of crisis.

Shanti, whose great-grandson was born during the Covid-19 pandemic, craves to take her in her lap but her family member asked her to refrain until she recovers. This is very traumatic for her. She never thought that, in a family where she is at the helm after her husband died two decades ago, anything like that would happen to her. Covid-19 is taking a huge emotional and psychological toll on her.

Puspa, Shanti, and Pukkho often chat here sitting under this small neem tree // Photo: Mayank

Recently, a 50-year-old village woman died due to Covid. That death spread an irrational fear among these women. They think that if Covid infects them, they will not survive.

Dr Debanjan Banerjee, a psychiatrist from National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans), Bengaluru wrote in an article for  US-based National Center for Biotechnology Information: “The uncertainty and fear of the pandemic can have an increased effect on the minds of the aged, as they are aware of their vulnerability. The fear of death stays lost in the existential fear of losing their loved ones and guilt of possibly being the carriers of the infection. This can lead to significant ‘What after me?’ issues and self-neglect, which can, in turn, lead to non-compliance to the prescribed standards of precautions.”

The picture is not that gloomy, Despite their fears and precarious lives, these women are adapting to the new normal. They are wearing masks, maintaining distances. The space under the neem tree where they gather is still filled with their chatter, even though they are apprehensive. They talk about police beating those flaunting norms during earlier days the of lockdown, they talk about how city folk locked themselves up in their houses, along with their family chatter.

Unlike elderly people in cities, villagers meet regularly; they do have a social support system needed during a crisis like this. Thus, even when there is a paucity of policy interventions to reach out to elderly people, they have someone to share their pain, happiness and apprehensions. As of now, when there is not a huge outbreak of the disease in villages, psychological situations are not so grim for the elderly. But that can change any time with a small surge in cases of infection.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a recent video conference said, “While physical distancing is crucial, let’s not forget we are one community and we all belong to each other. We need improved social support and smarter efforts to reach older people through digital technology. That is vital to older people who may face great suffering and isolation under lockdowns and other restrictions.”

How social support is crucial can be assessed by looking at the short period when Shanti was ill. It was a very disturbing experience for her. If in case, by any chance, she were infected with Covid — it possibly could have led to psychological and physical damage.

For Puspa, whose son is violent and often beats her daughter-in-law and grandkids, the apprehensions of Covid include fear of getting beaten up by her own son. She, however, says, “My son doesn’t beat me.” Her two friends deny this claim and detest this behaviour but never confront him because Puspa does not want it to happen. Puspa wards off her fear in the company of her friends even in the time of pandemic. They hope their togetherness lasts.

(Names changed to protect identities)

(Cover: Unlike elderly people in cities, villagers meet regularly; they do have a social support system needed during a crisis like this // Photo: Pxfuel.com)

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