In the pandemic of 2020, when the world went into lockdown, one Indian lady who is above 80 years of age, engaged herself in making videos on Indian culture, mythology, and literature from her apartment in San Francisco.
Her name is Mrs. Harsha Watts and she is my mother.
She learned how to record, upload and manage her YouTube channel “California Nani” on her own. Here, she has showcased about 500 videos made by her with more than twenty thousand viewers. My mother’s life holds a message that learning and following one’s passion can occur even after eighty years of age! Here are some excerpts from the life of California Nani, which is an inspiration to many.
For a large part of her life, mom remained a reticent atheist. Yet back in India, she fulfilled her duties in organizing religious festivities for the family. Her greatest talent lay in cooking delicious meals. Without feeling exhausted, she managed all chores herself, after which, she would sit to knit sweaters for her loved ones!
When I was growing up in India, I recall how mom would help all of us at home with our homework. She would help us understand meaning in literature, explain shlokas in Sanskrit, show us the tricks to memorize science and math. Several evenings, when the light would go off, mom would give a candle to us so that we may continue to finish our homework in a room full of darkness.
Although mom couldn’t finish her own college, she aspired to see her children excel academically. She was the person who would attend the parent-teacher meetings at school in India. Now that everyone in the family is settled in the US, you might be thinking that my mother must be leading her retired life.
Well, a few years back, my father had passed away. Mom began visiting temples each day. Soon after, she engaged herself in making jewelry and dresses for the deities. I was surprised to see this transformation in a nonbeliever.
A few years back, she fell down, twice, when her feet got entangled in her saree causing multiple fractures on her knee and foot, and hands. Wearing a saree or keeping long hair wasn’t feasible anymore. Short hair and western attire brought another transformation in her leading to a miraculous phase.
When mom turned eighty years of age, her granddaughter asked her, “what was life like in India in 1940, 1950, and 1960?” Mom began remembering her childhood during the partition in India, and beyond. We wanted to preserve the words of wisdom flowing out of her lips. With the help of her granddaughter, mom launched her own channel on youtube – CALIFORNIA NANI, in August 2019. Now she wakes up each morning with the goal of making one video each day.
The beauty of this endeavor is the preservation of knowledge related to Indian culture and benefit to students of Indology.
While parents left behind in India are terrified of COVID-19, their NRI children are impatient in a distant land to return back to them. We are worried about our loved ones staying far away. Recently, NRIs settled in US, UK, France, dealt with the rapid transmission of COVID-19. The nightmare of a rapid influx of positive COVID-19 cases among potential foreign returnees is petrifying and we must be wary for the most vulnerable populations in India.
In India, the number of working-age populations suffering from COVID-19 is substantial because of its large middle-aged populace, yet the elderly are just as likely of getting the infection, resulting in fatality; this is due to weaker immunity systems, presence of comorbidities, and slower recoveries from diseases.
A handful of research supports that 60+ people with pre-existing comorbidities like chronic lung, liver, kidney diseases, hypertension, cardiovascular illnesses, cerebrovascular diseases, diabetes, and those dependent on immunosuppressive drugs have a higher chance of COVID-19 infection than the rest.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 80% of COVID-19 associated deaths are among more than 65 years’ age group, with increased deaths in elderly males. Thereby, it becomes a challenge to fight the disease for India where the number of the elderly population is close to the combined population of UK and Italy.
The Health Ministry opined in April that “8.61% cases are between 0-20 years, 41.88% cases are between 21 to 40 years, 32.82% cases are between 41 to 60 years and 16.69% cases above 60 years“. Simple statistics from the current population structure can establish the vulnerability of the greying population- about 8% of Indian population above 60 years’ accounts 17 % of COVID 19 patients; while about 62% Indians 20-60 years have approximately 73% COVID-19 cases. Hence, the elderly is at no less risk than the middle-aged to this novel disease.
India has a propounding 140 million (UN projection, 2020) 60+ population. Majority of the districts across India have 7-10% percent elderly. While, many districts of Southern states – Maharashtra, Himachal, Uttarakhand, Punjab – have more than a 10% elderly population (Fig1: a). Based on 2011 Census, our map indicates that many districts of Rajasthan Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Gujarat, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana have a high proportion of 60+ elderly who are disabled (seeing, hearing, speech, movement, mental retardation, and mental illness; Fig1: b). Districts with a higher proportion of elderly, especially disabled elderly, require special focus and regular monitoring in the framework of tackling pandemic.
Elderly Population in India, 2011.
(a) Proportion of 60+ elderly; (b) Proportion of 60+ elderly disable
Source: Based on Census 2011
Impacts on the elderly are layered. World Health Organization (WHO) has identified mental health as an integral part of overall health in correspondence with physiological, behavioral, and psychological wellbeing of older adults. Gerontological studies have established the association of inadequate social wellbeing and poor elderly health.
Proportion of Elderly Living Alone and The Prevalence of Different Diseases Per 1000
Source: Calculated from WHO-SAGE 2007 Data
The long lockdown in India is vital to avoid burdening the healthcare system and to suppress the chain of transmission of infection. It is mandatory to take “extra care” of the elderly because social distancing may lead to depression, anxiety, and mental illness, especially among the elderly who are living alone and/or are disabled. The vulnerability of the elderly with less social support can escalate in instances of accessing medical support, transportation, banking, food access, etc.
Income, medical security, and social support are major challenges during and beyond the lockdown period. Although, the central government has announced some financial-welfare schemes and guidelines/instructions in the light of the COVID-19 crisis, the helplessness of the aged needs special consideration.
During this tough time, it is necessary for the government, stakeholders, social welfare organizations, and communities to stand in solidarity to provide the essential supplies (groceries, vegetables- fruits and medicines) to the elderly at their doorstep.We need to take precautionary steps to avoid infecting the older adults by sanitizing and frequently cleaning their belongings like, clothes, spectacles, canes, walkers, beds, toilets, chappals, etc. and encouraging them to get engaged in possible physical activities/works within the home.
In order to bolster our elderly loved ones, we need to assist them through social and mental connectivity. The void of connectedness can be minimized through phone, online calls, messages, or encouraging them to interact with friends/neighbors keeping a safe distance. We all should stay connected with the aged while staying away to keep the world positive.
Subhojit Shaw is a doctoral fellow at the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai, India (IIPS, Mumbai). His academic quest revolves around population aging, child health, and environmental health.
Aparajita Chattopadhyay with her two decades of teaching and research experience, has contributed well in the fields of public health, gender issues, aging, environment-development, and nutrition. She is a faculty of the International Institute for Population Sciences.