For 72-year-old Rehana Sarin her two-bedroom flat in a Noida high-rise has been her “world” since her husband passed away 15 years ago, but she has never felt more lonely and secluded before as in the months following the coronavirus outbreak.
“I have taken the vaccine, but I know I am still susceptible to the disease. The way the coronavirus is spreading, and in view of my age, I have kind of locked myself in my flat. Earlier too, I was not going out much,” said Sarin.
Dependent on her neighbours and friends for her groceries, medicines and other requirements, she asked, “How long can it continue like this.”
“My husband left me a two-bedroom apartment which has been my world ever since he passed away. I have a good neighbourhood in which I have friends, their children and grandchildren. But I cannot be dependent on them all the time for essentials,” said Sarin, who feels more anxious by the day as cases rise across the country.
On Sunday, health ministry data showed, a record single-day rise of 2,61, 500 cases. The data for Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Budh Nagar district, in which Noida falls, on Saturday showed 402 new cases.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult for people like Sarin who have been living independently and are elderly. Besides being highly susceptible to the virus, their old age has also made it difficult for them to commute and socialise, adding to their loneliness and anxiety.
“Though I manage to get essential items, it is the loneliness and anxiety that has been really bothering me,” said Sarin, who became eligible for anti-coronavirus vaccination last month after the health ministry said people aged 45 and above account for about 88 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in India making them the most vulnerable section of society.
The septuagenarian said, “I am not very tech savvy but I learnt to buy basic items online.”
However, she said she fears that those delivering her order could be a carrier of the virus. “Even delivery of essential items makes me anxious,” Sarin said.
According to NGOs, there are around 25 million elderly who live independently in India.
The situation for elderly couples is no different from those staying alone, and Rajesh Singh, 66, who has been living with his 61-year-old wife Sudha in west Delhi, said, “It feels like our life stopped in 2020.”
“We try our best not to step out, and whenever we have to, we take proper precautions, but (since last year) it has been very depressing. After the first wave ( of the coronavirus) subsided, we thought normalcy will return in some time but now with the second wave there seems to be no end in sight,” said Singh, whose children stay abroad.
Sudha said despite all precautions she fears that they will contract the infection.
“The very thought has been giving me sleepless nights. Moreover, we are at such an age that we need regular health check-ups but that has been very difficult too. The coronavirus pandemic feels like being caught in an endless cycle of despair,” she said.
Archana Sinha, 65, a resident of Mayur Vihar in Delhi, said she hardly speaks to anyone.
“It is after 3-4 days that I am speaking to someone. I have been living alone since 2010 but have never felt this lonely,” said Sinha, who has been living alone since her mother passed away.
“Before the coronavirus, I had a good support system of friends and neighbours but now we are scared to meet. We used to talk over phone but that also gradually reduced,” she said.
Sinha said her old age and co-morbidities make her highly vulnerable to the infection and for that she got vaccinated.
“But the fear of COVID still remains and more than that it is the gloominess all around that has been daunting. It feels like people of our age now have nothing to look forward to,” she said.
NGOs working with the elderly said a lot of senior citizens especially those living alone have been battling depression, anxiety and a sense of abandonment since the onset of COVID-19 and the situation worsened during the second wave.
Himanshu Rath, founder chairman of Agewell Foundation, said about 25 million old people live alone in India and a larger number of them are women who are widows.
Rath said mental health of old people is a bigger issue during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Old people have invested a lifetime into their present lives and they feel that now that I have retired and will live comfortably, but now corona has hit them,” he said.
“They first thought that it is getting over but now it has come back in a big way so now every old person is thinking that the world is coming to an end and all their dreams of the last 60-70 years are crashing down which is leading to a sense of depression and anxiety and abandonment,” Rath said.
He said that another problem is that all of them are now extremely concerned about their children too, “thinking what will happen to them in view of the pandemic”.
“They are also worried for their grandchildren who are very young, so they worry a lot. This applies more sharply to those living all alone, they are more desperate because they have no one to communicate with,” he told PTI.
Rohit Prasad, CEO, Helpage, said there is a need for having a very specific approach towards elderly who are living alone and the government has got the system going but the last mile organisation support is what matters.
“Even during the COVID relief phase the civil rights organisations came for that connection (last mile). On our helpline, we are getting many calls just to understand things and the biggest fear is that if something happens, who will take care of me,” he said.