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Aleyamma Koshy, 80, who has rented out a part of her home, is not that depressed. At least she feigns so. Her son is doing well in the Gulf, but it's a grandson in the US who communicates with her and sends money. Her room is cheerfully decorated, with birthday cards from her great-granddaughters, and family photographs on the wall. Aggrieved that her son doesn't ring up? "No, not at all," she mumbles.
Pathanamthitta district has the second highest number of emigrants in Kerala, with 44.3 emigrants per every 100 households, most of whom are highly skilled and earn good incomes abroad. (Malappuram has the highest number, with 45 per every 100 households, but the majority of these are unskilled labour).
Not far from the Fellowship Hospital in Kumbanad is a mansion in which an 80-year-old woman lives alone. The manicured lawn, the silver cutlery and the airconditioners belie the decrepitude of the mansion's owner. Lying on a waterbed, she has refused food and water all day. Dr Jacob George, in charge of the mobile service attached to the Fellowship Hospital, is on call, but there's nothing much that man or machine can do for her now.
Pathanamthitta also has the largest proportion of 60-to-80-year-olds of any district in the state. But dollar remittances from their children abroad are cold comfort for the lonely old parents.
In this gloomy scenario, 96-year-old C.M. Mathew Chempothukalayil sparkles with impish wit and true grit. His prized possession is a vintage bicycle. "Two weeks ago, I pedalled up to Kozhencherry town," he chuckles, "and, ah, the doc has asked me not to do that again. He says my faculties are intact but our roads may not cope!"
Every day, Mathew scours his favourite Malayala Manorama page to page, and enjoys watching TV serials. The old man is ready to entertain the visitor with schoolboy quotes. He reels off in fast pace: "Matriculation examination is a botheration for the Hindu nation (sic) who lives on the shores of the Indian Ocean, whose sole occupation is cultivation". Mathew draws his breath and adds: "This is what I got from school more than 75 years ago, when the British were still breathing down our necks." But in the midst of this joviality, his eyes well with tears as he recalls the death of his wife three months back. His eldest son is 73 years old and lives in Mumbai. His other children are in the US. And the secret of his youthful spirits and energy? "No smoke, no drinks and good food. My mother died at 102 years. So the last mile is still a long way off for me, eh?"
Abraham Varghese, 70, and his wife are among the youngest people in Kumbanad. Their house is fitted with intricate anti-burglary devices.
On Sunday mornings, some of Pathanamthitta's old folks gather at a rundown shack to discuss age-related problems. Retired bus conductor Yesodhara Panicker is in command at Vruddha Jana Vedi, an old-age forum. The group chips in to collect funds for the welfare of the less fortunate among them. The lone woman in the crowd, Rahelamma, shouts: "Sir, please ask the government to give us old-age pension". Panicker is perturbed over the scant protection from thefts and burglaries. And he wants the administration to allot the Vedi land to construct a pucca old-age centre. Abraham Varghese, relatively young at 70, says his house is fitted with anti-burglary electronic alarms which would wake up the entire neighbourhood. "But what's the use when a call for help would bring only guys older than me?" he shrugs.
As local physician Jothy Dev observes, "During the several medical camps held here, I've found that the elderly seldom turn up because there is nobody to bring them. The phenomenon of loneliness and helplessness of old people amid growing affluence is increasing in Kerala."
The statistics bear out Dr Dev's observations. According to a recent economic survey, "It is a noteworthy feature of Kerala that the percentage of the aged population (above 60 years) is fast increasing. From 1961 to 1991, there has been a 160 per cent increase in the population of older adults, with the majority being women." It is high time God's Own Country started paying attention to this issue.