Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The downside of working with the elderly: Goodbye to Rathinam

On the spur of the moment and mainly to expend some chapati acquired energy I decided to cycle to Keelalathur Elderly Welfare Centre for an impromptu visit. Tomorrow there is an official visit for which Jamuna, the caretaker, will be forewarned, so everyone will be in their places, scrubbed, doing puzzles, playing games and generally showcasing the simple facilities at the centre, but I like arriving unexpectedly and seeing what is really going on, so today I cycled the 7km to Keelalathur and surprised them. I was heartened to see several piles of completed paper bags which some of the elderly had made. Each bag sells for 75 paise (1p) and so far they have made 738 bags in a month or so. It is hardly a project worthy of Dragon Den interest, but nonetheless sitting and chatting to friends whilst earning a few rupees instead of spending the whole day scouting around for hard labour which moment for moment has a much poorer rate, is a good use of their time.

When I arrived this time there were several new faces and only one of the men was there. Although a couple more arrived later, when I enquired, Jamuna told me that there had been 8 deaths since the start in 2006. I knew of a couple, including Sukkupattu who was a particular favourite, but I was extremely sad to hear that Rathinam had also passed away since August. Apparently he had been hospitalised for TB and had not survived. Rathinam was a relatively educated man who had married a lady with schizophrenia which was very difficult to manage, especially when she had children, so the family allowed him also to marry her younger sister. They all lived in the same house caring for each other and the children. Everyday Rathinam would bring his schizophrenic wife to the centre, and whilst she benignly sat and stared around, he would read the newspaper out loud to his friends. He was particularly fond of me and every time I visited, he would stand up and make a speech about how grateful he was for the centre, giving him peace and friendship in the last years of his life. If anyone complained about not being given saris or other things, he would get cross and tell them to be grateful for what they had. When we discussed the possibility of opening another centre after Keelalathur had been open for a year and, trying to stress the importance of sustainability, ie income generation, we had said that there was a limit to the funds available, he made one of his speeches. He stood up and said that they would always be grateful for what the centre had given them for a year and if it was the turn of other poor elderly to benefit from our generosity, they they would gladly give up coming to the centre so others might have a chance to receive what they had. It is almost inconceivable that someone with so little could be so generous. I am so glad that Rathinam derived such pleasure from the solace that the simplicity of the Keelalathur Elderly Welfare Centre provided him. His wife still comes and she is now surrounded by her friends; even though her mainstay has passed away, she has been incorporated by the group and they carry on her care and support.

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