Every alternate day, Supriya Narde, 72, from Maharashtra’s Kolhapur makes it a point to finish her morning chores earlier than usual, by 11am – all in anticipation of meeting her friends, the husband and wife duo of Vinay and Uma Vajandar (both in their 70s), who stay hundreds of miles away in Bengaluru.
They had their last in-person meeting five years ago when Narde visited her friends in India’s IT hub.
But since the middle of 2020 – with the coronavirus-induced lockdowns and social-distancing norms forcing people, especially those above 60 years, to stay indoors as much as possible – Narde, the Vajandars and 85 other elderly people from across the country have been meeting online on a regular basis.
The online platform is the brainchild of the Nightingales Medical Trust (NMT), a Bengaluru-based not-for-profit organisation working for the cause of senior citizens. Under the NMT’s online active ageing programme, elderly participants meet via Zoom calls to attend physical and cognitive sessions for two hours on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. The participants range from the age of 60 to 90 years — and they are from Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra.
The NMT started the programme in 2014 to help elderly people improve their physical health and cognitive skills.
“When the lockdown started in 2020, we decided to transfer the whole programme online in April. It was a critical time and we thought we can’t abandon our elderly participants, as they are always one of the most neglected groups in society,” said Ramani Sundaram, team lead, research, training and development, NMT.
Among the initial challenges was the issue of the senior citizens’ comfort level with gadgets and navigating the online space. “Thankfully, our participants got help from their family members, especially grandchildren, who taught them how to start a Zoom call or send WhatsApp texts. Many of our elders are already technology-savvy. Our team members are also very helpful and patient with the participants. All these factors helped us to continue with the online programme,” says Sundaram.
The NMT has been looking after people with dementia for the last two decades. Its online active ageing programme is a part of prevention and enrichment steps towards stopping physical and cognitive impairment.
Along with gyming, yoga, aerobics and kickboxing (all designed according to age and physical stamina), cognitive activities, memory exercises, decision-making, papermaking, computer learning, social activity, book reading, outing to resorts and skits are also part of the programme. Currently, outdoor activities are on hold. So far, at least 500 elderly people have benefitted from the programme. The monthly fee is between Rs 350 to Rs 500.
One positive outcome of shifting online was that the programme, which was Bengaluru-centric, went national.
During her last visit to Bengaluru, Narde, an entrepreneur who runs her own gas agency in Kolhapur, had visited the NMT centre with the Vajandars and was left impressed.
She wished Kolhapur too had a similar centre and even spoke to a local politician about it. But things did not work out. “Once the programme went online, I immediately joined it,” Narde said.
Narde is “more than thankful to the NMT” since her participation has ensured she is regular with her exercises. “As a senior citizen, I hardly leave my home,” she says. “In fact, I am managing my business over phone calls since the pandemic began. My nephew and employees are helping me to keep my business afloat.
“I hardly meet anybody, even my friends and relatives. Because of the NMT, I am getting a chance to meet and talk with people from my age group. We share the same issues and sensibilities. It definitely gives me a sense of belonging — in a world where we all have been caged.”
Narde lost her husband several years ago and her daughter stays in Australia. “I feel lonely. I keep myself busy with household chores, gardening and painting,” she says. Narde also suffers from back pain and had a surgery on one of her arms several years ago after an accident.
“We conduct the programme scientifically and it’s based on a research study in the UK called ThinkingFit,” says Chandana K, centre in-charge, NMT. “The programme has several benefits. It has helped elders to decrease their blood glucose level, stabilise blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and [led to] considerable improvement in cognitive skills. Our members have reported significant improvement in their quality of life and reduction in various cardiovascular risk factors.”
Retired Hindustan Aeronautics Limited official CV Sastry, another member of the programme, joined in 2014. Now, the 80-year-old from Bengaluru and his wife, Uma, 75, a retired teacher, never miss their Zoom classes. “Both my wife and I have had several surgeries. The exercises have helped us to recovery early. I don’t have either diabetes or hypertension but my wife has both,” says Sastry.
He enjoys dancing, singing and storytelling the most in the NMT programme. “In life I have learnt that we all are growing, not ageing,” Sastry says. “I never had any difficulty using devices.”
Mohini Naik, 72, a former teacher at the Bethany Special School & Vocational Training Centre, Bengaluru, joined the programme in April 2021 after being encouraged by her friend Shanthi Mallar, 70.
Naik has had a slip disc and contracted the coronavirus in the recent past but is back on her feet now. “Thanks to the programme, I am spending two hours of a day very constructively,” she says.
Mallar, a retired bank official, joined the programme with her husband in 2017, and has seen both its online and offline versions. “Earlier, we used to meet. Now, we meet online. At least, we have a space to take care of our mental and physical health,” Mallar says. Mallar experienced loss and grief after her husband, VS Mallar, (78), retired professor from the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, died of coronavirus in 2021.
Both Mallar and Naik learnt the ropes of the online world on their own and with a little help from their family and friends. For the time being, both Narde and Sastry are satisfied with the online interaction and learning under the NMT programme. But like most of us, they are eager to move freely and meet their loved ones soon.