Ageing In (this) Place
Without the aid of glasses she can see only so far ahead, requiring her to slowly pick her way down the lane. She’s hunched over, but surprisingly agile, cautiously stepping around and over debris, touching the paan stained wall to steady herself until the vendor clogging the lane with his assorted offerings moves along, allowing her to continue on her way. She might have cataracts in one or both eyes, complicating her passage, allowing her to see only fuzzy shapes without edges through the white veil of fog covering her eyes. She most likely has a form of arthritis, and a chronic cough from years of living in a crowded, polluted city. Her knees will ache, and decaying teeth will cause her pain, while decades of malnutrition have never allowed her to reach a healthy height or weight.
I don’t often write blog posts about aging in a slum community. The elderly are the quiet, hidden, weary few who sit quietly in the lanes, or in the dark confines of the one room homes they share with extended family, and they often go unnoticed in the melee of a crowded community. I am the same age, or older, than many of the elderly here, yet my physical health, my agility, my mental health and general well-being, and the choices I take for granted, are not something we share. For every year that I age, they seem to age five years.
The definition of ‘elderly’ in this community is anyone over the age of 50, and few make it to their 70th birthday. To be elderly or disabled anywhere is a challenge, but to age in a slum community requires a toughness and a resilience, a resignation, that comes from a life with no choices and the constant requirement to adjust to their worsening circumstances — their abject vulnerability is compounded for each year they age.
According to the the World Health Organization, life expectancy in India is 67 years. Long before then, their bodies have shrivelled and shrunk from years of back-breaking, hardscrabble, piecemeal work, lack of sleep and food deprivation, overcrowded, uncomfortable living conditions, and chronic illnesses. The women have endured years of the patriarchy ruling their lives, leaving them more weary and more stoic than the men. The men have worked strenuous daily wage jobs throughout their lives as manual labourers, drivers, security guards, or street food vendors and sewer cleaners — their thin bodies bearing witness to the years of physical labour they have endured. Some of the men relieve their frustrations with cheap alcohol which only seems to fuel their angst, leaving them more desperate, sometimes violent, and for many, it has caused them to be ineffectual earners for their families. Some women will have endured years of domestic abuse at the hands of their husbands and his relatives, another reality of generational poverty within a caste system that endures, allowing a hierarchy within the home. Their watery eyes hold the wisdom of the aged, but also deep truths about a history of dismal living conditions. Their hands, rough and arthritic, have held tight to many children, hand washed thousands of garments, sifted dirt from rationed grains, prayed at countless roadside temples for a better day, washed mountains of dishes, scrubbed the floors and the clothing of the middle class, picked through garbage piles to find something a recycler might pay for, all in the fight to keep a tin roof over their heads.
Resting in old age is for the few in this community who have spent their lives in survival mode. Many grandmothers have been left with the daily care of their grandchildren while their parents work long hours. They are tasked with preparing food for the day, getting the children ready for school, and then walking them to school in the tangle of traffic, heat, and dust — a job more suited to an agile person than one with feeble bones. Some grandmothers have inherited the life long care of their grandchildren when the children’s parents die, or, in some cases, when a parent deserts their family.
The most basic of human needs, using a toilet, becomes a herculean task, requiring patience and endurance beyond the level of human dignity. Many slum rooms don’t have toilets, making the long trek to the public community toilet block a journey with too many obstacles. Once there, they must manage the few steps up to the toilet block that leads to a filthy, claustrophobic stall equipped with a squat toilet, no water, no soap, and doors that often won’t lock. The lack of dignity afforded to anyone who has to use the public toilet is apparent when they must carry a bucket of water to the toilet block to wash themselves.
The grandparents, whose families care for them and coddle them in old age, are the lucky ones. Respect for the elderly runs deep in India, but for the poor, grandparents represent another mouth to feed, and another body needing space on the floor to sleep. Relatives have to stretch their rupees to adjust to the medical needs of their ageing family members, which becomes difficult, if not impossible. With minimal space in one room homes, some elderly members sleep outside, curled up on charpoys (webbed cots) in the lane, or they find a covered doorway on the street. Their struggling family moves on without them, and they rely empathetic neighbours to supply them with meals. Some elderly women spend their day begging at the Sai Baba temple nearby at the convergence of a busy road, hoping for a few rupees from the few thousand pedestrians who pass by this spot every day. When the fight for daily survival is precarious, everyone is valued for their ability to work, to contribute in some way to the household. Those who can’t, sometimes face enormous challenges to remain a valued member of a household where every rupee counts.
The National Social Assistance Programme for elderly persons living below the poverty line, depending on which state they live in, pays 300 - 700 rupees ($5 - $12) per month for persons age 60 - 80 years. If a person lives into their 80s the pension might increase to 1000 rupees (about $10). To access this pension, the elderly must be literate, have a bank account, have knowledge about the pension, and have a family member help them to contend with a bureaucratic mess of paperwork or online submissions.
What can we do for them? We supply food rations, subside their rent payments, take them to doctors, pay for their medicine, their medical tests, and pay for surgical procedures. We’ve paid for cataract surgery and for eyeglasses - one of the ways that makes an immediate difference in their daily lives. They aren’t forgotten, but in their quiet servitude they can sometimes go unnoticed by us and their families. They receive immediate and devoted help from Indu and DWP, when on their behalf, a family member, or a concerned neighbour, visits Indu’s home to ask for assistance. It’s an honour to assist them, to witness them enjoy a modicum of comfort when a medical issue is taken care of, to help relieve some of their daily stress, to listen to their stories, and to hold their rough and tender hands.
Below you'll find an update on funds spent on health, school fees, rations etc from January 12 - August 22, 2022:
Indu is busy handling the many requests she receives regarding health issues, school fees, and ration help. Here’s the breakdown of what we’ve spent during this time period and the issues that required funding. As always, you can check out our posts on Facebook and Instagram for weekly updated information and stories.
-Aagya Bind - Ongoing TB medication/Doctor’s fees/required tests for the treatment of TB.
12,785.60 rupees (CAD 207.77)
-Najma Shaikh - Day surgery for back pain issue. The fees include one day in hospital/surgery/Doctor fees/medication
18,470.80 rupees (CAD 300.15)
-Radhika Badad - Emergency cesarean birth fees
55,000 rupees (CAD 893.86)
-Alina Hasmi - blood tests/medication for fever and pain
1392.20 rupees (CAD 22.63)
-Ashwini Shinde - chest x-ray/blood tests/medication
980 rupees (CAD 15.93)
-Sofian Shaikh - 4 day hospital stay/medical tests/medication
21,352 rupees (CAD 347.03)
-Abdul Rehman Shaikh/13,950 rupees (CAD $227.26)
-Sabat Rupesh Gagesh/10,800 rupees (CAD $175.91)
-Chanda Ahana Amin/10,800/CAD (CAD$175.91)
-Tanishka Jayant Thakur/66,700 (CAD $1086.68)
-Sabat Rupesh Gagesh/14,950 rupees (CAD $243.48)
The fees for Tanishka Jayant Thakur and Sabat Rupesh Gagesh are higher than usual due to family difficulties (death of a father, single mother, typical hardships to do with daily wage workers). The fees in their cases hadn’t been paid for months with some of the fees needing to be paid from the previous year.
Birthday Celebrations (cakes and small gifts):
5000 - bonus birthday gift given to Indu to recognize her efforts on our behalf and the community)
1200 - 4 children’s party gifts/cake/treats
6200 rupees (CAD $100.77)
Rations (food, soap, personal care items) for one month (two households):
4638 rupees (CAD $75.38)
Noorsaba Shaikh (currently living in a village in the state of Bihar) required school text books.
4000 rupees (CAD $65.01)
Transportation for a 22 year old deceased male brought back to community for puja/cremation. The young man died miles from the community and we assisted his parents to bring his body back to the community.
5000 rupees (CAD $81.26)
247,018.60 rupees (CAD 4024.60 + $100-$150 in bank fees) based on XE exchange rate of 61 rupees = 1 CDN dollar (fluctuates)