Back when you were growing up, they were the people who gave you chocolate without you even having to ask, who blatantly took your side when you got told off by your parents, they were the ones who knew all your favourite foods, always had the time to teach you how to ride your bike and told the best stories.
That’s just what grandparents do. They love without expecting anything in return. Through their little gifts, their loving gestures and their wisdom, they teach us about life. But as we outgrow our childhoods, we outgrow them, too. They’re suddenly older, slower and frailer. They talk less and complain often, and suddenly, their stories just aren’t interesting enough any more.
That’s precisely why Sarasa Vasudevan began Vishranti in 1993. The farmhouse in Hoskote she’d been saving for her retirement became home to a group of elders all of whom now live together as one big family.
“When I was in college, I visited an old age home in Yelahanka, which is when it struck me how many old people are abandoned by their families,” said Sarasa. While the home took good care of them, the residents had to go without the little touches that make a real home. The little pleasures that mean so much to them and which the rest of us take for granted, like piping hot sambar and the spicy rasam, for instance, were things they were forced to sacrifice. “My home was going to give them all these things,” said Sarasa. “We all want a nuclear family when we are young, but as we grow older, we want people to talk about life with, who will listen to our stories and understand them.”
Sarasa flips through some pictures on her phone as she speaks, going over photographs of birthdays celebrated around the large dining table, with plenty of merriment and good cheer.
“We always celebrate a birthday by making that person’s favourite food and gathering around the dining table where we can talk and laugh together. We don’t allow smoking and we don’t allow alcohol, but those are the only rules,” said Sarasa.
Vishranti has 10 residents at the moment and everybody chips in with the running of the place. Vegetables are grown on the farm, picked, washed, cut and cooked by the residents, Sarasa, her mother and her mother-in-law. “This gives everybody a sense of belonging,” Sarasa points out.
Ten years down the line, Vishranti is well settled and that’s when it struck Sarasa that there are many old, lonely people in the city who need help and don’t know where to find it. Sarasa also found plenty of youngsters eager to lend a helping hand, but don’t know how to go about it. That’s how the idea of a helpline came about.
“When I went to apply for my BSNL connection, they asked me how my helpline was different,” she said. The helpline is not restricted to elders in distress, but will cater to every senior citizen out there who can’t do all the things he’d like to and has nobody to help him out. “It could be as simple as wanting to go for a movie or going shopping,” said Sarasa. “We have volunteers all over the city, so we assign those living in the area to the elderly person so it doesn’t become a logistical nightmare.”
Things worked out better than she’d expected. Young people who had never experienced the joy of having a grandparent simply revelled in their duties and the elders loved them too. “One lady was so pleased with her volunteer that she invited him home to lunch and his face simply lit up!” Sarasa laughed. Registration is done through a one-time fee of `1000 for a lifetime membership. This keeps it affordable and also helps keep things from burgeoning out of control. “One volunteer actually told me that the little errands they run for these people give their lives a sense of purpose, too.”
“I want to take all the people registered on our helpline out to Vishranti because that will be a nice day out for them,” Sarasa said. “I also want to bring our residents at the home into the city, so they can meet each other and make new friends.” They’re also planning a gathering in the city to bring everybody together and give them a chance to socialise.
We promise ourselves that we will spend more time with our grandparents, be more patient perhaps, but more often than not, we’re too late. With families becoming estranged as couples choose to live abroad, many children will never feel the love and caring that only a grandparent can provide. Charity for elders is always forthcoming, but what they need most and might just find in all this, are patience and understanding to remind them that maybe life was worth it, after all.