Senior Citizens Group Reaches Out To Vulnerable Elderly in India

Terrified of the silvering 60s and the years thereafter? Don’t be. Meet the members of the Chandigarh Senior Citizens’ Association (CSCA), who are not only giving a new meaning to their lives after retirement but are also reaching out to the vulnerable elderly living in abject poverty. At a time when most people their age have given up on life, 1,445 CSCA members are comforting the terminally ill, ensuring the welfare of destitute widows and are even trying to make the lives of 100 girls of a resettlement colony in their city a little better. Says CSCA President Brig. (Rtd.) Keshav Chandra, 76, “The association was started in 1996 with 150 people. Now we are a registered NGO with 1,445 members, some of whom are in their nineties. What brought us together was the common desire to start an organisation that would focus on the welfare of the senior citizens. As a group we wanted to be self-reliant and strong enough to look after those who can’t and we work towards that every day.”

Besides extending camaraderie to fellow members as well as giving them a sense of identity and belonging, the association fights for the rights of senior citizens and regularly takes up issues related to the elderly with the state government. Housed at Karuna Sadan in Chandigarh’s Sector 11, the CSCA has a Constitution and elects a governing body every two years to oversee their activities.

While their broad agenda is fixed, the health and well-being of seniors is one of their top priorities. Therefore, medical camps are regular in the Chandigarh tricity area – comprising Chandigarh, Mohali and Panchkula – as are lectures on health issues by eminent professionals. Physiotherapy, acupressure and magneto therapy centres have also been set up and regular yoga sessions and Reiki healing camps are conducted. In fact, Chandra, a yoga instructor himself, holds sessions every morning at one of the association’s centres at Sectors 15 and 18 in the city. Moreover, the CSCA has a keen set of volunteers, who help senior patients find their way around government hospitals and clinics, especially on days earmarked exclusively for the elderly.

Besides the socio-medical camps, which are now a standard feature of the CSCA’s yearly work, understanding the demand of these times, it has set up computer training centre where the elderly are introduced to the basics of computer use. This is especially important because nowadays most people have at least one child settled abroad and even basic operations like banking and paying bills are increasing turning digital.

However, the one activity that gives most CSCA members a true sense of satisfaction is empowering elderly destitute women. Under Project Vanita, the CSCA has facilitated the formation of two clubs, with 35 members each, in the city’s Mauli Jagran and Indira colonies where poor women, who are otherwise struggling to survive, can get together and share their life stories with each other and the CSCA members.

Every fortnight, the CSCA holds meetings with them, during which they all sing ‘bhajans’ (devotional songs). The women are also introduced to issues like the importance of proper sanitation and adequate nutrition and at times, materials such as soaps, socks, cardigans and blankets, bought from donations the CSCA receives, are distributed.

Thin and frail, Sikindra Devi, 61, has been with the Ganga Devi club at Mauli Jagran for the last 10 years and has made innumerable friends. Although she has many household responsibilities – she takes care of her two young granddaughters because her son is unemployed and her daughter-in-law goes out to work – Sikindra eagerly looks forward to her time out in the company of other club members.

As does Suhag Rani, a 60-year-old widow, who used to support herself by doing odd-jobs when she was younger. Suhag became a part of the Ganga Devi Club four years ago. She says, “Attending these meetings always makes me feel good. We learn so many things and meet so many people. Once, we even visited the Anandpur Sahib and Gurudwara Bhatta Sahib in Rupnagar district. It was a memorable experience for me.”

Of course, if women like Suhag Rani and Sikindra Devi are leading better lives today, those who are responsible for making it possible are only too happy to play their part. In fact, they are glad that post-retirement their time, energy and money is being put to some good use.

Harish Chandra Soni, 73, a former senior banker admits that touching 60 can be very tough for those who have led a hectic professional life. Initially, Soni joined the CSCA to meet others of his age. But over time he got drawn into its multifarious activities. Today, this involvement has given him “a sense of fulfillment”. Harbir K. Singh, 70, CSCA’s Secretary of Welfare, couldn’t agree more. Says this retired warden of Chandigarh’s College for Girls – Sector 42, “Everyone needs an occupation even after retirement.” So, she has not only involved herself in the CSCA’s daily operations but has made sure that she is engaged in a lot of its works as well. “I no longer feel old. In fact, I feel active as am constantly on the move,” she smiles.

Like Singh, CSCA Vice President Surjit Kaur, 71, too, has found comfort in working for the association following her husband’s death in 1990. “Both my children are well settled – my son is in the United States and daughter lives in Jalandhar. I am happy that I have found something meaningful to do as part of the CSCA,” she says.

Today, of course, the CSCA is no longer planning to reach out to the elderly alone. Elaborates Chandra, “We want to be associated with the younger generation as well. Given our knowledge, experience and expertise, we believe we can impart a great deal to them.”

To do this, the association has collaborated with two local NGOs – Society for Service to Voluntary Agencies (North), or SOSVA, and Yuvsatta – on an intervention they have called Project Shakti. The idea is to help young women and girls evolve into healthy adults capable of standing up to prevailing prejudices so that they become effective and self-reliant members of society.

Already, 100 girls from Bapu Dham, a resettlement colony on the outskirts of the city, have been adopted by the NGOs, and they are being given basic economic empowerment skills in the form of traditional craft making. They also get a periodic medical examination, where iron and folic acid supplements, calcium, multivitamin and de-worming tablets regularly distributed.

According to Chandra, the CSCA has always maintained that senior citizens must contribute to society as a repayment for what they have got over the years, “We believe they must earn their special status in the community rather than demanding it as a right or seeking it as charity; that they must demonstrate their relevance in the changed socio-economic scenario.” So motivating has this organisation been that now sister chapters of the CSCA have come up in other cities of Punjab, covering nearly two-thirds of the state.

But no one in the CSCA is ready to rest on their achievements just yet. They want to continue making a significant difference to the lives of others – and themselves. Chandra has the last word: “Voluntary activity is the best therapy for senior citizens.”

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