At the launch of the startup Goodfellows on August 16, Ratan Tata said, “You do not know what it is like to be lonely until you spend time alone wishing for companionship.” Tata, an octogenarian bachelor, should know what he's talking about. He has invested an undisclosed sum in the startup founded by his protégé and a general manager in his office, Shantanu Naidu, a Cornell University product who is just 25 but whose heart bleeds for the lonely elders fighting boredom if not helplessness. Earlier he had founded a venture for supporting pets. Speaking at the launch, Ratan Tata also said no one cares about getting old until they actually get old. Mr Naidu apparently is one of those youngsters ahead of their time.
Goodfellows hires youngsters who have the skills of empathy and emotional intelligence to work as companions for senior citizens. They are also required to ease their day or help them with any task. It is believed that the minimum fees payable for their services is Rs 5,000 a month. Mr Naidu said their tasks may include playing carrom, reading the newspaper for them or even taking naps together. In its beta phase, the company has been working with 20 elders in Mumbai for the past six months and is planning to offer services in Pune, Chennai and Bengaluru next.
The plight of our elders transcends boredom and loneliness, though these are by no means inconsequential. Affordable health care eludes them — unless they were fortunate enough to retire as government employees and thus earned the facilities of the lifelong Central Government Health Scheme, warts and all. Health insurance companies look askance at them saying they present risks that cannot be covered by premium. Anyone past 60 is a strict and instinctive no-no for health insurers except for a fat premium that climbs up quinquennially. It is the stage of their lives at which dental problems start plaguing them but which have always been in the excepted list of insurers. Cataract is another problem that besets them and insurers condescend if at all to set aside but a small portion of the total cover for cataract surgery and intraocular lens.
The government must urgently do something on the health front for senior citizens. Maybe Ayushman Bharat can be extended to them even if they do not come from the bottom of the heap or the lower strata of society. Philanthropists like Ratan Tata can give them free or subsidised treatment at their hospitals. Alternatively, they can give hefty donations to private hospitals with conditions attached — such as reserving beds for the elderly without means.
Old age homes are sprouting in India, with Coimbatore positioning itself as senior citizens’ paradise similar to Naples in Florida (US), with its salubrious climate. NRI children often leave their parents under the care of a good old age home. They either make a onetime upfront payment or pay monthly but their conscience is eased at the prospect of their doting parents being left in safe hands. It is not as if such children are amiss in the discharge of their duties to their parents. The truth is that many parents get more bored in alien surroundings where their children might have adapted themselves, and refuse to settle abroad with their offspring. Anyway old age homes do fulfil the felt needs of elders with timely food, in-house entertainment, companionship of the like-minded and in-the-same-boat inmates besides medical checkups even if they are perfunctory. But they throw up their hands in helplessness when a major health issue arises, because unless the patient has adequate health insurance cover, the home itself can do precious little apart from providing nursing care. After all, such homes are not hospitals.
Old age brings with it attitudinal problems too, some of them of the elders’ own making. Certain activities are out of bounds for them but not for their offspring. So, they should accept exclusion from things like long and arduous travel with maturity and not resent the good fortune of the young in this regard. On the flip side, like Ratan Tata puts it, old age must be experienced first-hand for one to empathise with the plight of elders. So, it is not uncommon for youngsters to make light of elders’ plight especially after tending to their needs and idiosyncrasies for a length of time. Patience with the old wears off but not with the little ones they themselves have sired. After all, the old don’t smell and feel as dainty as infants!
As to their monetary needs, there are quite a few avenues for them to invest in. Pensioners are lucky but their tribe is small. House owners are a much larger tribe and have a potent weapon at their disposal when they find their children growing indifferent during their sunset years. Reverse mortgage is just what the doctor ordered in such cases. It is a rage in the US; senior citizens can mortgage their properties for a lump sum or periodic payments, as they desire. They don’t have to service their loans during their lifetime, and the mortgagee recovers their dues with interest from the legal heirs on the death of the borrower, failing which the property is sold and dues recovered from the sale proceeds, leaving the legal heirs with the remainder if at all. This is possible in India too, but banks are not too enthusiastic about it in the absence of a government guarantee as in the US, and more importantly due to lack of interest from the target borrowers who are reluctant to hurt their children even if the latter neglect them. Indian elders are a sentimental lot.
The Naidu-Tata Goodfellows initiative is good at first blush, but on deeper reflection would be found addressing just the intellectual cravings of a tiny fraction of our senior citizenry, the well-heeled ones at that. Even if the charges are made more flexible and affordable, there is likely to be resistance from those who expect more bang for their buck. A companion is generally expected to do more – make tea, perhaps even cook, tidy the home, do the shopping, in other words be a general factotum. One hopes that Goodfellows in course of time adds a range of other useful services, thus appealing to a wider and larger section of senior citizenry.
The writer is a freelance columnist for various publications and writes on economics, business, legal, and taxation issues