The other day, I went to visit an elderly neighbour who is recovering from a hip replacement surgery. Well into his eighties, he also has early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease among other old-age problems. His wife, who is his main caregiver and the fulcrum of their house, had to be suddenly rushed to hospital because her sodium levels dipped alarmingly and she was incoherent and confused. When I entered his house, the silence and misery inside was palpable.
What I saw disturbed me deeply, for not only was the poor man highly anxious about his wife in hospital, he was unable to visit her because of his own condition. Above all, it was the silence of the house and the isolation that had aged him because of anxiety and depression. He kept telling me to stay on a little longer because my presence gave him the human contact he obviously craved. Naturally, he cannot have a stimulating conversation with his staff and, like most men, is hopeless about talking on the phone. He is also technologically challenged and so cut off from his children because he does not know how to work a smartphone or chat with them via a computer. All day, the TV blares loudly (he is also hard of hearing now) and the noise it generates must be more irritating than entertaining.
I have described this scene so vividly because this is the story in most homes where old people live alone. Their children are either abroad or unable to visit them regularly given their own busy lives and the restrictions imposed by Covid protocols. Going out for an occasional visit to a friend or meeting someone in a club are now not possible. His wife and children police him constantly, out of concern for his physical well-being, but they are quite oblivious of the isolation that is eating into his mental health.
This brings me to the most serious side-effect of the lockdown and restrictions upon lives — depression and mental health issues. The world over, societies and medical researchers are looking at the effect of depression on the young and old alike. And in countries where winter brings freezing weather conditions, long nights and virtually no sunlight, the effect is even more severe. I read recently of how Japan has recorded an alarming rise in suicides among the young. The lack of sunlight and warmth, natural or human, can be a potential killer. Else why do we see such high rates of suicide in the Scandinavian countries that are counted among the most advanced societies?
It pleases me now to see the little children and young adults living in our colony running around in the park and cycling or playing ball games whenever they are free from their online lessons. For months, there was an eerie quiet and while we rejoiced at the birdsong that we could now hear and the welcome silence of no traffic on roads, I must say having them back has signalled a new level of happiness and normalcy. Young mothers had to cope with the tantrums and meltdowns of little children who were cooped up inside small apartments for months. Watching endless cartoons or playing computer games did them no good. Hyper-active, high energy children drove their parents to screaming and shouting at them most of the time. I could hear yowls from angry mothers and the howls of frustrated children all day from the flats around me. Domestic violence is another area of rising concern. Several couples have been driven to near-divorce because living constantly in each other’s presence raises several levels of anger and irritation. The result is a simmering anger that takes just an argument to snowball into physical violence. College-going students forced to live with parents is another flashpoint as generation gaps widen.
Many of these problems relate to those classes that are well-off. The poor and struggling are so busy making ends meet that they have no time to think of what to do. Their lives have become even busier as they take on more and more work because that compensates for the jobs many have lost. So the choice is between being rich and lonely and being poor but surrounded by a noisy family and neighbourhood. Choose the life you would rather have.
I will end with a lesson our old Man Friday Ram Singh once gave me. He was accompanying me one night as an escort to the railway station where I had gone to see off an uncle. As we were returning, I saw a line of cycle rickshaws parked along the pavement outside our house. It was a steamy summer night and many of the rickshaw-wallas were either sleeping on the pavement or had stretched out on their rickshaws, covered in their lungis to ward off the mosquitoes.
‘Look at them,’ I told Ram Singh. ‘The poor things don’t even have a cot to sleep on!’
‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but have you seen how soundly they sleep? Bibiji, those whom God gives AC rooms and comfortable beds have to take pills to sleep and those who have no beds are rewarded by Him with sound sleep.’
Wiser words were never said.
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