India: Kottayam’s Grannies Are Off To School

By Shwetha E. George, Womens Feature Service

Liyamma was born rich but had to wait 76 years to celebrate her first birthday party. Her parents belonged to a generation that probably never baked a cake and her children felt that she didn’t need it anyway, certainly not at her age. But at Pakalveedu, the day-care centre for the aged in Kottayam, Kerala, Liyamma blew hard to put out the candles on her 76th birthday cake. She was blowing away more than just the candle flames, she was extinguishing her loneliness and deep depression.

“When she first came here,” says Tito Thomas, a counsellor with a degree in theology, who runs Pakalveedu with his wife, Shanthi, “she couldn’t even feed herself.” A few months later, she was a happy, lively and confident woman, who started wearing ‘churidars’ (Indian leggings matched with long top, worn largely by younger women). Today, Liyamma is no more. But the two years of regular attendance at this nouveau facility had transformed her completely. Her fellow members feel that Pakalveedu didn’t just give her a life, it also prepared her for passing away peacefully.

The influence of a peer group is no less important for the aged than it is for the young. In fact, it is more important for the elderly because the need for fellowship – defined as an association of people sharing the same interests – increases as one grows older. But one of the reasons why Pakalveedu hasn’t become the raging new fad is because it is very difficult to convince the older generation, weaned on years of sacrifice and selflessness, that they also need time with ‘friends’.

The concept of Pakalveedu was borrowed from the West by a prominent priest of Kerala’s Mar Thoma Diocese during his theological training in the US. Rev. Fr. Samuel John started an NGO called Smile India, under which three Pakalveedu centres, run by its board members, were established in Kodimatha, Kurichy and Manganam ‘panchayats’ (village councils), respectively, in Kottayam.

As opposed to old-age homes, Pakalveedu does not uproot the old from their homes and plant them in an alien environment. “As you grow older, you get accustomed to routine,” says Tito, “and your bed and your coffee cup become dearer.” In an old-age home, one is suddenly deprived of one’s belongings and forced to live under restrictions. “Here, we come of our own volition,” says Lucy, 77, belonging to an upper-middle class family in Kottayam. She and her sister-in-law regularly visit the centre at Manganam thrice a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Adds Rachel, 80, a regular at the centre, “Everything is informal. We can ask for a cup of tea during the prayer session or go lie down in between a game when we feel tired.”

For members of the day-care centre, their day starts from the time the Pakalveedu van picks them up from their respective homes. Since the Manganam Pakalveedu has affluent members, each one pays a membership fee of Rs 60 (US$1=Rs 47.14) per day. Cooking, therapy, aerobics – there is no dearth of activities here. But they all admit that if it weren’t for the common conveyance, they would be stuck at home. So do they feel that three days a week is not enough? Says Mariamma, 73, “We just hope we can came out on these three days at least!”

Then why does the Manganam centre not have more than its current crop of 10 members? “Because everybody feels that this is an option only for the lonely and the uncared,” says Aliyamma. Her children accuse her of demeaning them. They feel that her presence at Pakalveedu is proof of her feelings of neglect at home. “They don’t understand that I need to spend time away from them as well,” she says. At the same time, some families are happy to have the Pakalveedu option because it helps their parents have a more positive attitude on life, making them easier to live with.

Of the three centres, the one at Kodimatha caters to the lower middle-class. The members here are all women over 60 years who are either destitute or neglected. Of the 12 regular attendees, 10 live in poverty. They come to the centre twice a week, taking free rides on private buses for a five-hour fellowship, which includes prayer, lunch, games and a bit of exercise. Sara, 93, became a widow at 22 and single-handedly raised her son by working as a maid in various houses. “Today, I work as a sweeper in the veterinary hospital and earn Rs 750 a month,” she says. She attends an evangelical centre every week because they give her a free meal, old clothes and some travel allowance. The last time her son visited her, he gave her Rs 20.

Two unmarried sisters, Ammini and Chachy also attend the Kodimatha centre twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, more for the free meal and bus fare than the games and interaction. “There are days when we have lived on just gruel water,” she says, adding that she has forgotten what milk and eggs taste like. Their parents died early and one brother who is still alive does not wish to keep in touch.

However, other than the difference in their socio-economic background, the members of both these centres have a lot in common: stress, loneliness, a lack of self-esteem… the list is endless. “The aged have no self-esteem,” says Tito. “Even the retired president of a country loses confidence as he grows old.”

According to Dr K. P. George, a retired professor from Government Medical College, Kottayam, who is a columnist on family health in a leading vernacular periodical, “The concept of Pakalveedu can be a success for those with a gregarious attitude to life.” He adds, “But those who have a complaining nature, who lament their fate and nitpick continuously, will find fault with any new venture.” George believes that Pakalveedu is a progressive idea that will soon become the social norm.

Yet, the disparities persist. Members are almost always women, especially widows. The reasons for this vary. Perhaps it is because they are older, more spiritual and are usually house-bound and therefore relish such interactions. These centres depend on donations. The counsellors and guest speakers work for free. Though the two up-scale centres at Manganam and Kurichy charge a nominal fee, the expenses entailed are at least double the amount they get from members. But the biggest hurdle of all is the lack of awareness. “The fact that Pakalveedu is still an obscure endeavour and is not being sufficiently patronised is very discouraging,” says Tito.

But for women like Aliyamma, Paklaveedu is the best perk of being old. “If my fisherwoman (regular fish vendor who makes house calls) sees me at home on Pakalveedu days, she asks, ‘Hey, didn’t you go to your school, today?'”

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.