Old man mask covid
Fear of COVID has meant a substantial percentage of the elderly have ignored their routine tests for serious illness Image Credit: Gabriella Clare Marino

A friend of my father’s mentioned something the other day that got my attention. He alluded to people in the 70s- their age group and asked me to dig a little bit to get him some answers. Behind this thought was the quest for a first-person perspective on whether his peers still had a spring in their step or whether it was perennially autumn.

“I want to know whether my generation is simply vegetating and perceiving themselves as a burden to society or do, we still have meaningful contributions to give. How does this generation view itself?” he added.

His questions were a bit discomfiting because he had unknowingly given words to something that has been gnawing at me in the past few months. While his intent was larger, my vision though has been relatively short term, since the pandemic outbreak to be precise.

As COVID-19 continued to steamroller, a dawning realisation that there was more than what was meeting the eye as an invisible people in many parts of the world quietly began falling through the cracks. Since last year, I have often felt that the children have been the silent victims of the pandemic. But there has been a section of the population that has simply gone silent.

Redefining acceptance and social isolation

While our generation made a production about ourselves whether it was about working from home, doing grocery in the lockdown, about not being able to go to the gym or meet our friends, hidden behind the four walls of their homes, seldom spoken about while redefining both acceptance and social isolation have been the senior citizens.

As children to our parents and parents to our children, we had one duty- to keep them protected and I don’t mean just physically. How many of us can say we did right by them and not just what we thought was good enough? How did we forget our elders?

Hope may be eternal but can also stutter as the recent months have shown us. No one has had a monopoly on anxiety or uncertainty, and we just needed to take a few minutes and ask those who COVID has slowed down the most, if they were fine.

Neglect is not always obvious. 6% of India’s population is the elderly and they have quietly grieved the loss of lifelong friends, wondering who will be next. Yet, those who stayed back do so without a murmur.

Their vulnerability has grounds that we aren’t always sensitive to, alienation can happen despite physical proximity. Before the second wave when their children threw caution to the wind- mingling and unmasking, they stayed in without a complaint as though hidden behind a curtain peeking out occasionally to take instructions from those whose indiscretions ultimately brought COVID home.

No complaints by senior citizens 

And they remain resilient. Whether empty nesters in the same city or a different country, their stoic acceptance of the circumstances has shown us how child is not always the father of man. There have seldom been complaints of boredom by our parents or grandparents, instead the yearning for a change back to the old has been quietly squashed in a realism that has been hard to emulate.

This was a time perhaps when the impact of the rising emergence of nuclear families in India was felt the most. In many households the elderly without the physical support of their children during the lockdown have taken community help to get a medical test done or reach a doctor’s appointment.

Those in the middle-lower income group though have been tested some more. A HelpAge report ‘Bearing the Brunt’ has flagged the risk of abuse and neglect by caregivers of the elderly and talks of how ‘ageism’ has been exposed like never, before.

The organisation in India says it received more than a thousand calls related to abuse, violence and disputes to its Elder Helpline during the second wave with this helpline alone receiving a total of 20,000 calls in the second wave, an increase of 36% from the first. Imagine, if there is another wave still to come.

Loss of livelihood, resources and family members — especially an ageing spouse has made a neglected section of people plunge into oblivion. Another study conducted by the Agewell Foundation revealed that more than 70% of the elderly in the country believed that their mistreatment had increased during the lockdown.

Out of the comfort zone

There are other concerns as well, that may seem minor to us but are out of the comfort zone of the elderly. The senior citizens have been struggling to understand technology- including online consultations, their legal provisions and the path to vaccination that is full of misinformation.

Their own chronic ailments and comorbidities were already a pushback and now with incomes slashed, HelpAge says many are avoiding buying medicines for existing ailments. Not just that, the fear of COVID has meant a substantial percentage has ignored their routine tests for serious illness.

A friend recently tried to get an appointment with a therapist. Everyone was fully booked out till September- imagine the other epidemic that is raging and while there is now some talk about adults and mental health, there has barely been any questions asked of our senior citizens. Think back, did we tell them once that it is OK to not be OK?

When we talk of a healing touch, perhaps one day we will give the elderly a fair hearing. Not just in India the global response to the older generation has been woefully missing and with lack of any coherent data, they will continue to exist as they have in the past year, invisible and on a pause button.

We all have a right to a future, why then have we presumed they don’t?