On a chilly December morning, the police were called by the neighbours to a Sinthee house. The residents, Kaberi and Sarbani had not been responding to the doorbell for almost a week. The rotting supplies of milk and fruits at the doorstep were an indication that the local departmental store was home delivering their weekly ration — as arranged — but no one was receiving them inside the house. Sadly, no one noticed until it was too late.
By the time the ‘SOS’ got registered and the police arrived, Sarbani, 72, was dead following a cardiac arrest. Her sister Kaberi, 85, was discovered at a critical stage. The burdens of age, ailments, and loneliness had made the sisters so weak that they were unable to do anything on their own. When Sarbani passed away, Kaberi, who was in a bed next to her, didn’t have enough strength to drag herself up to call for help or answer the door.
The case of Kaberi and Sarbani is not just one isolated incident. It is one of the sad realities of the present age, signalled by several cases occurring in the city on a daily basis. In 2014, the Times of India reported the death of at least 11 aged people within a span of merely three months. They died a lonely death with the neighbours coming to know only when the bodies started decomposing or when someone called to check after three to four days.
Sadly, the city of joy is now a greying city, rapidly losing its youthful vibrancy. Kolkata is growing old, with the largest number of 60-plus citizens in the country. What’s even more appalling is the decreasing number of 20-year-olds, which is the biggest population segment in almost all the Indian metros. The alarmingly low ratio of youngsters clearly suggests that they are increasingly heading to other parts of the country for better education or job opportunities. Is Kolkata becoming lonely for the aged?
Sociologist Prasanta Roy thinks that an individualistic lifestyle — a growing phenomenon among the new generation — is to be blamed for the shift in societal patterns. “What might appear shocking to us is natural to a child when he is living in a nuclear family. His parents are busy with their jobs and the ayah is his only link to the wider world. By the time he becomes mobile – looking to enhance his career – he begins a cost-benefit analysis,” said Roy.
The renowned sociologist also shared why neighbours usually tend to “overlook” people around them. “The moment someone asks about the well-being of his neighbour, he suffers from a moral dilemma of how much responsibility he might have to take. Hence, he decides against asking anything at all,” Roy stated.
A study by the United Nations Population Fund revealed that in the city of Kolkata, and the rest of Bengal, the social engagements of elderly was shockingly minimal. More than 78% of the elderly population surveyed by UNFPA said that they didn’t attend any social event in a year’s time. The reasons are multiple, but largely, it is because they have no one to look after them.
According to Indrani Chakravarty, Director of Calcutta Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, and the chief mind behind the UNFPA study, it is not just medications that the elderly people need to come out of their depressing loneliness. “Proper counselling can help prevent most of these extreme cases of loneliness. But, we need to know how to react collectively as a society,” she shared.
A Healing Touch
With crime rates against the elderly at an all-time high, the Kolkata police have stepped in with an innovative community policing initiative called the Pronam. The volunteer-based organisation not only checks on the health and safety of all elderly people in the area but also organise events and excursions to keep them busy. Police officials, in charge of Pronam, said that the answer lies in getting the community more involved.
The drive, launched in 2009, has over 13,800 members and a long list of 3,000 pending applications. Anyone above the age of 65 can register for it. A permanent office has been set up in the Ballygunge police station to maintain the database of registered members. Police officials are being specially trained by professionals in how to interact with the elderly citizens. These police officials have the approval to contact the senior citizens once a week and visit them once in a month.
Furthermore, the Kolkata police have designed a ‘stay safe’ fact sheet for the city’s elderly to make them cautious and careful in their dealings. Some of the suggestions they offer for the lonely and aged include tips like not discussing financial matters in front of servants, avoiding opening cupboards in their view, and keeping the phone numbers of some neighbours on the speed dial.