New Delhi: Senior citizens in India are currently facing a double whammy: Not only are they more susceptible to getting infected by the novel coronavirus, they are also among the sections of society worst-hit by the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day lockdown on the evening of 24 March, ordering for it to come into effect that very night. It took the government and essential service providers some time to figure out how to plug the gaps in delivery, which would allow them to stay open and stay safe at the same time.
Senior citizens who have restricted mobility and whose children live separately or in other cities or countries away have suffered as a result.
Subodh Trivedi, a 69-year-old retired businessman from Ahmedabad, is living alone during the lockdown, as his wife has gone to visit their children in the USA. “I have been getting meals from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation for the last four days. But when I initially got myself registered for the meal delivery service, I was told at 3 pm that my lunch meal had been cancelled. I had to go hungry that day,” Trivedi told ThePrint.
He said he contacted the AMC helpline on the same day, but was not able to get through to resolve the issue. He had to take help from friends and family to gain the attention of the local authorities.
Amita Basu, a 58-year-old resident of Kolkata, has limited access to food and medicine supplies. Basu and her 65-year-old husband Amit are diabetic, while their only daughter has limited mobility due to arthritis.
“Standing in long queues at the grocery and medical store is difficult for us, and not safe either,” Basu said, adding that since the lockdown, her family has had to prioritise buying only items they are in dire need of. “At other times we have to reach out to NGOs and friends,” she said.
Basu also narrated an incident that her husband faced at a chemist shop.
“My husband was in a long queue when a man in the chemist shop fainted. He had to immediately leave the shop without their medicines, fearing a commotion,” she said.
“We understand that we are the most vulnerable to the disease, but home deliveries are inadequate and have a long waiting time,” Basu said, adding that the family has so far not been able to get a delivery slot on a popular online grocery platform.
Doctors explain the problem
Dr Ramkrishna Bhansali, a general practitioner in Ahmedabad with over 50 years of experience, explained the manifold problems senior citizens are currently facing.
“The first is the problem of access. In the initial days, a lot of my senior citizen patients did not know how to procure medicines. With the opening of chemist shops and delivery services, this problem has been solved for most of them,” Bhansali said.
He said the problem is compounded by the senior citizens’ lack of financial independence — they worry about whether their pensions will arrive on time, or if their children will be able to provide for them at this juncture.
He also added that the division of geriatric medicine as a separate field of study is a very recent phenomenon across the world, and is in its nascent stages in India.
“Although the medical needs of senior citizens are different from those of others, most seniors that you find today either still refer to their general physicians, or consult specialised doctors only when the need arises,” Bhansali said.
Dr Khusrav Bajan, also a general practitioner at Mumbai’s Hinduja Hospital, said an extra effort was being made to help seniors.
“According to the government regulations, we are giving prescriptions on the hospital letterhead over WhatsApp. Senior citizens with delivery services or access to chemists are buying their prescription medicine,” Bajan told ThePrint.
However, he agreed that there is a problem for those who are bedridden or dependent on maids for daily needs. “I generally refer such people to private bureaus providing nurses. But hiring these nurses is not something that everyone can afford,” he said.
Bajan, who lives with his senior citizen parents, added on a personal note: “It is difficult to rely on help as well, because they have to travel for work. One cannot take any risks with seniors as they are highly prone to this disease.”
Dr Pushkar Shikarkhane, a consultant with numerous hospitals in Mumbai, added that hiring nurses too was turning out to be a logistical problem for some.
“Hiring nurses for bedridden senior citizens is also getting difficult due to the curfew. Nurses have trouble travelling due to the restrictions. Somehow, people are managing with help from neighbours and strangers,” he said.
Mahita Nagraj, a 38-year-old Bengaluru based digital marketing professional, runs a Facebook page called ‘Caremongers India’, which is reaching out to those in need during the lockdown.
Nagraj said: “On 20 March, when social distancing was advised for senior citizens, my friends from abroad requested that I check up on their parents for food and medicine. I also posted a message on my wall asking friends if they wanted me to check on their loved ones.
“The responses started pouring in. Not only friends, but strangers from across the world sent me messages requesting help for their loved ones.”
Caremongers now has over 25,000 members and has reached out to everyone with access to a phone and internet. The collective has formed a tie-up with delivery app Dunzo in five cities. In other cities and towns, volunteers reach out to those in need.
In Chennai, disaster management organisation Bhoomika Trust has set up a helpline for senior citizens and those with compromised immunity for services at their doorstep.
Aruna Subramaniam, one of Bhoomika’s trustees, said: “We have set up a team of 20 remote volunteers, who help seniors and those in need.”
She added that Bhoomika Trust has also figured out transportation services within Chennai to help geriatric patients, as well as those requiring regular dialysis.
Resident welfare associations are also reaching out to senior citizens living among them, and assigning tasks to younger members. One such youth is Vinayy Bahety, who runs errands for his 75-plus-year-old neighbours in Bengaluru. He also orders medicines for them online, since most of the seniors are not very tech savvy.
“We have helped not just senior citizens but community members who are physically disabled or those who do not know how to cook. We have a disabled senior citizen in our midst, and we check on him and his wife for their daily requirements, while one of us goes to clean their house every week,” Bahety said.