04 December 2006 Society lifestyle: senior citizens

Sunshine Chateaus

Silver townships in the Western Ghats are drawing the elderly
Sunshine Chateaus
Atul Loke
Sunshine Chateaus
Nestled in the hills of the Western Ghats, a good distance away from the residents and picnickers of the Neral-Matheran hill stations, sixtysomething Usha Mantri sits in the little patio adjoining her room, sometimes with her favourite Saadat Hasan Manto volume, sometimes just looking out into the horizon, happy to soak in the sunrise, hear the early birds or breathe in the sounds of silence. Each morning she's spent here since March merely affirms her rather momentous decision—to come away from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, to set herself free from the demands of high-pressure urban living, to cocoon herself from well-meaning friends and even family in her twilight years. "These hills turned so green and virgin in the monsoon, it was a treat," she says, "You see, I have become a pahadi now."

Mantri is among a new but growing breed of senior citizens who, despite good health and lifestyle options, choose to return to nature as it were and make their home in communities meant exclusively for those who cross the magic age of 60 years. Welcome to retirement townships or senior citizen communities. The sublime climate, virgin green hilltops and absolute peace on the Neral-Matheran stretch, some 100 km from Mumbai, means it's now home to at least two such large townships, with a few more on the drawing board.

Retirement townships or communities are aeons away in concept from old-age homes. They aren't unimaginative, decrepit buildings housing old and ailing persons that a family no longer wants in their midst, or the solitary person without family. These townships are designed as attractive and comfortable homes for those who shrug off the dependent cloak, choose to live by themselves, interact with other senior citizens, and take in some fun 'n frolic alongside the solitude many of them desire. All this, without the nitty-gritty of running one's own home or taking care of small chores that can be irksome. These townships are typically designed as groups of cottages or rooms, with a central administration office, recreation facilities, basic medical facilities with a doctor on campus in some cases, trained staff for housekeeping and odd jobs. They offer food options—limited menu but amenable to special requests—in comfortable mess-like settings or in your own cottage or room that measures 500 or 375 sq ft. Just in case the urge for a coffee strikes, each cottage or room comes with a small kitchenette. There's a television, even a fitful broadband connection. It is, as Mantri says, the comfort of one's own home without the responsibilities.

Mantri chose to live here, away from her two sons and their families, entirely of her own accord six months back. She was among the first residents of the Dignity Lifestyle, a senior citizens' township that's being developed at Mangaon, near Matheran. Spread over 25 acres, the first phase of living quarters houses over a dozen persons, an expanding library, e-connectivity. The second phase, under construction, will add upscale cottages/rooms, a temple, a bank ATM, an auditorium, a clubhouse-spa. Electric cars akin to golf carts ferry residents within the township while a dedicated car/taxi takes them to the nearest railhead or bus terminal for a small fee. "That we get about a dozen calls every day and three to four physical enquiries at the site is testimony to the fact that it's an idea whose time has come," says Dr Sheilu Srinivasan, chairperson of the Mumbai-based Dignity Foundation that works exclusively for senior citizens. Her future plans include an enrichment centre where residents can learn new and esoteric subjects such as medical astrology.

On a more modest scale is the Senior Citizens' Village, about 10 km off Neral station. The Village, almost in the middle of nowhere, with ten independent 500 or 750 sq ft bungalows around a garden, a large canteen or mess facility with a buffet for the days you don't want to open your little kitchen, round-the-clock security and emergency medical facilities. Here, you can buy your own bungalow, keep it locked or pass it on to heirs as you desire. Developed by the Mumbai-based Senior Citizen's Trust, the Village has attracted retired couples from Mumbai and Pune, considering it's equidistant from the two. "It's like a home away from home," says an ageing but sprightly patriarch requesting anonymity, "We didn't want to interfere with our childrens' lives. We didn't want to live the same life anymore. That's why we're here. Call it old age escapade."

Escape of sorts it was for the Carpenters too. British-born Dennis and his fetching Indian wife Gulistan couldn't take the frenetic rhythm of Mumbai life anymore. Their suburban apartment was locked up, yoga instructor Gulistan said goodbye to many of her clients, they paid up for a room at Dignity, and moved in. "I just sat up this morning and saw the sunrise. The mornings here are worth dying for, the air is so free and unpolluted that Dennis is already feeling better," says Gulistan. She travels once a week to keep her work going at a super-speciality hospital in Mumbai but spends five days "almost cut off from civilisation" as she puts it. At times her mobile buzzes and emails drop in to remind her that the Dignity township is not all that removed from civilisation either. She's getting acquainted with other residents, asking about the seven or eight in the Nightingale cottage—a specially built block that houses ailing seniors, particularly those with Alzheimer's cared for by trained nurses. But this bears no resemblance to the archetypal old-age homes. Inmates are not chained to their beds.

The price tags are in a range that would appeal to upper-middle-class seniors. Dignity charges a non-refundable Rs 3 lakh and a refundable Rs 4 to 8 lakh, depending on the cottage/room. They take members, unlike the Village which puts a tag of Rs 5 lakh to a small bungalow you can buy outright. There's a monthly maintenance fee too. A retired bureaucrat couple drops in for their third look-see. "Moving into a township like this is a bold decision, children don't see the point," says the husband, "but for parents-grandparents who are done with life's duties, this can mean independence reclaimed." A second start to life sans responsibilities, perhaps.

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