A rendezvous worth remembering - interview with Ms. Savithri Vaithi, Vishranthi

Ms. Savithri Vaithi - Founder of Vishranthi home for the aged and the Monday charity club. The name sure did ring a bell, as my own grandmother had been associated to the Monday Charity Club, two decades back.

I waited at the Vishranti administrative office, at Alwarpet, expecting to meet the 79 year old Ms Savithri Vaithi, but in walked a brisk and a vivacious woman. I must admit, neither did she look 80, nor did she feel that way. Confident, observant and full of life!

After a small discussion on her association with CIOSA, and a promise from me that I would keep the interview alive, with interesting questions, we commenced our conversation, over a cup of coffee. Excerpts from the interview:

How do the problems of a old woman /single/divorced woman, differ from that of a old man’s?

It is to be clearly understood that while an old woman manages to adjust and live amidst familial surroundings, ironically it is she who finds it easier to leave her home, when the need arises thereby breaking free from all the familial bondages. Men have a lot of prestige in them and  are in a far more demanding position than the women, and thereby are reluctant to leave homes and take that crucial step ,in coming over to old age homes. And this is the reason for the women population being more than the population of the men, in old age homes. Besides this, I feel that both the man and woman almost depict the same behavioral patterns during old age. They have a similar set of issues to handle.

There is an adage that no institution can replace the family. Please comment.

(Emphatically) Most definitely, no institution can replace the family! The love and care that one receives from a family is irreplaceable. An institution is a place where you get love and care, but you do end paying for it. Don’t you? Why should someone pay money for love and care?

The system that has long been upheld and glorified is the family system. India for sure is getting developed in every way but along with it we will have to accept  with  it the flipside, one of them being, the disintegration of the institution of family.

Do you feel hopping back to past traditions and family values systems can help bring back the long lost glory of the senior citizens?

It is impossible to go back to earlier times. Times have drastically changed and so have the life style patterns .I must mention that the western influence can be widely noticed in today’s living patterns. Most of the senior citizens, in spite of their family ties staying abroad, prefer to live in India, as, life in India offers them a life of freedom .They prefer staying true to their roots. .We cannot transcend back to past systems, we just require a shift in thinking patterns.

A major shift has been observed where the elder citizens seek companionship constructive and comforting support. Your views on that?

Companionship is totally healthy and should be welcome. The mindset of the society will have to change, wherein elders who opt to live with a companion are ridiculed .The concept of companionship has a very good value and gives the elders a sense of interdependence. They feel important and well cared for. I would just like to ask the children, who look down upon the concept of companionship “When You are not taking care of your mother, why do you object when somebody else is?”

Care cannot be given by mere emotions and a sense of obligation. How important do you think it is to derive a proper understanding of the actual problems and the remedial measures for the senior citizens?

Love and care alone cannot cure illnesses and malfunctions. Let us take the case of dementia, it is very important for the family members to be totally aware and observant of the preliminary symptoms leading to such dysfunctions. Family members ought to assume greater responsibility.

In case of old age institutions, it is advisable that they have a separate unit to address chronic illness and other mental disorders, faced by the aged. Normal care provided will not serve the cause. It will have to be backed by specialized medical services.

Elderly people are treated as bad risk? Please comment?

I would just like to ask those people who feel that old people are a liability, a single question,` If not for your grandparents, would you have come into this world?

Whether you acknowledge  it or not, they are a reason for your existence. I must also add, that awareness levels for the care towards the senior citizens has rapidly increased and that is a welcome sign.

Do you think old people are socially and psychologically prepared for the adjustment to be made in the later years?

After 40 years of age, you have matured, but please remember that the same growth phase is happening to your children as well. After a certain age ,parents  should mentally retire from their children’s  affairs .Of course the attachment will be there ,but parents will have to note that children  seek freedom with responsibility ,and the day the parents realize this, so many familial conflicts  can be kept at bay.

How do you think that an old person can integrate his/her experiences to make sense of life?

It is a tough thing to make the elderly one, integrate back to life with the same zest, like before. It becomes tougher, when the elders are afflicted with psychotic disorders and malfunctions. Old people biologically get attuned to nervousness, and it happens to me as well. Old people continue to have high hopes towards their family, and if not met, they become disillusioned.

In case of institutions, everything is systematized and thereby the inmates get adjusted to the set pattern. But the same cannot be expected from homes, where older ones might have to wait for their turn and this can cause restlessness among them. The elders will have to step back a bit and  it would be apt  for them to find a balance, and accept the real situation  rather than leaning towards extremes - be it attachment or disillusionment.

Are there enough policyimplications to validate the quality of life of the old? What are the areas that can be further addressed?

(Ponders) I feel that the pension scheme for the old can be increased .The various health schemes will have to be looked into and it should ensure that medicines are made available along with the provision of the health schemes. It should ensure coverage for all the elders who are covered within that respective eligibility bracket!

Has your influence of being a Seva dal worker, under Gandhiji, played a role in the contribution you have made toward the society?

(Smiles) Yes. I was a very involved as a youngster, in the Seva dal movement. The involvement was towards service, sans any political influence. I have worked in slums, and seen the bottom line problems. It has definitely made me the person I am today.

Abuses are of many kinds and one among them is self abuse. How do you deal withthe quality of self neglect and self abuses, amongst the elders at Vishranti?

It is a very sad situation that does not have a solution in definite terms. At Vishranti, we try and teach the elders, in matters relating to health and hygiene. Group living does help things to an extent as learning happens in a group and that enhances behavioral patterns. Nevertheless, do not expect a sea of change and progress. When elders abuse themselves, remain patient and stand by them, and teach them. These are the only few things that can be done, as this situation is totally inevitable.

How do the inmates respond to a newly introduced initiative within Vishranthi?

Within Vishranthi, there is utmost freedom to think, to talk, to express and to live. There is utmost co operation amidst the inmates of the Vishranthi family, and there is sharing as well as participation. It can be surprising to know, but I say with utmost confidence and pride that issues at Vishranthi are far and few between.

Feedback is very crucial for the effective and enhanced functioning of any institution. What kind of feedback mechanisms are placed at Vishranthi to ensure that interventions are achieved regularly?

Hmmm….Well feedback is encouraged strongly and there is immense freedom within Vishranthi. I can confidently say that the inmates here have no complaints or grouses. All their needs are well provided for. In short life at Vishranthi is `kurai ondrum ilai govindha`

Can you elucidate on your work - the book written by you: `Pon maalai pozhuthinilea`?

Well, The book speaks in detail about my work and my journey, and my experiences. I hope my work will remain to be a teaching for others. Old people are generally said to be in the “evening of life”, and from there comes my title “Pon maalai pozhudhinilea”. But to tell the truth, I haven’t finished reading the book fully, myself (laughs).

How do you brave the changing tide? What keeps you motivated and charged on a daily basis?

It is the concept of service that keeps me motivated and raring to go, despite all odds. I love people and make sure I respect all and make sure that they get their share of freedom. From time to time I have braved all odds because I have been able to adjust and adapt to situations. My success comes from my sensitivity and softness towards others. (emphatically).

Finally, on a lighter note, we would like to know what is your speciality preparation, as we quite know that you are a culinary expert?

Oh…those were old times. I do not cook any more…I am getting old too..you see…but if you would like to know, I was an expert at preparing sakkarai pongal…but I am wondering if I still would be an expert at that…?

My interview with Ms Savithri has come to an end but the impact lingers on. I leave, to share with my grandmom, about my meeting with the serene Savithri Vaithi…Needless to say, it has been a rendezvous worth remembering for eternity…