The pandemic & its toll on senior members of the community

By Indira Laisram
Clockwise top left onwards: Dr Gurdev Rattan, Gurswamy and wife Kokila, Sunil Abbott, Madhu Bala Bhatia, Nithi Kanagaratnam

Sitting in his rented North Melbourne home, Guruswamy Perumal, 83, can almost taste his own sadness these past many months. If the pandemic was not enough, he and his wife Kokila lost their younger daughter Meena to cancer last May during the height of the coronavirus outbreak. “Only ten people could attend the funeral,” he recalls. “Till now we are in a state of blur, it is very difficult to accept the reality… We spent most of our time with Meena.”

The pandemic, without a doubt, has unduly limited movement and life for everyone, but for Guruswamy, a well-known photographer in the community, the past 18 months or so combined with this tragic loss, failing health and financial constraints feel like life falling in on itself.

Living on age pension with 50 per cent of it going on house rent, he says there are so many other problems. “Every day I take 8 -10 medications, same with my wife. I have no source of income as there are no assignments,” rues Guruswamy, who had a successful photography career in India but left all that behind to move to Australia in the mid-2000s when their younger daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

During the lockdown, his two grandchildren would come by but only up to the gate. Finally, after six months, he and Kokila recently got to meet their great grandson, who they had only seen via video.

If that is some flicker of happiness, it is also the support from Housing Choices Australia that makes Guruswamy grateful during these times. “They have given us Woolworth gift coupons, I also got a first prize of 200 dollars in photography by HCA,” he says.

Guruswamy Perumal & Kokila

While individual experiences are different, there seems to be a collective suffering of emotional loneliness besetting many seniors. From her Pakenham home, Madhu Bala Bhatia talks about this emotional loneliness that overcame her and others during the lockdown and the pandemic.

“There was a time when senior citizens were called and asked, ‘how are you, how is your health’, but today a new question has arisen: ‘how did you feel during the pandemic’. Of course, we have gone through it and are going through it. Emotionally, it was hard because we are used to going to the temple where we find peace and motivation from one another,” she says.

Bhatia further says, “Get-together is a part of life as man is a social animal. Senior citizens felt isolation and tortured because they were not able to meet their children and their relatives because of the prohibition on movement. We became emotionally hungry as we could not share love and company.”

However, she says the pandemic has taught a lot, that, perhaps, “some bad karmas and bad luck has brought this. Now we have to make amends and do good deeds so that the coming generation does not face such type of difficulties”.

In the same vein, Dr Gurdev Rattan, a retired doctor who lives in Point Cook, says, “Life was tough for the elderly. A lot of people were going through isolation, depression, and anxiety because people were not earning that much too. For single wage earners, it was a particularly difficult time.”

Madhu Bala Bhatia

When the coronavirus arrived last year, Nithi Kanagaratnam ND, a Naturopathic Physician, welcomed the isolation because he could devote his time to writing his book. “I understand a lot of people were suffering but the pandemic has given me time to sit and do my work in a better way,” he says.

Kanagaratnam, 77, hails from Sri Lanka. He did his Master’s from India’s noted Allahabad Agricultural Institute now known as Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences and came to Australia in the mid-1980s. After working with the Victorian department of State Revenue Office for 14 years, he studied food technology at Victoria University, became a lecturer in food chemistry, joined Melbourne Medical College to study pharmacology and even created the subject herbal pharmacology in Victoria University.

The pandemic, he says, put a stop to his practice of naturopathy. But he found a way of helping people.

Every Wednesday, Kanagaratnam connects with other seniors on Zoom. “I have been doing Zoom classes for the past one and half years now. I talk about Siddha medicine (one of the most ancient medical systems of India).”

Kanagaratnam enjoys talking. “My Zoom talks have been not just about medicines but on other topics such as language development, say, the connection between south Indian languages and the Aboriginal languages here,” he says.

Last year, Kanagaratnam also started talking on Plenty Valley FM 88.6, a community radio station based in Melbourne. At a time of great uncertainty and social distancing, Kanagaratnam found a gainful occupation of time.

Nithi Kanagaratnam

It is this adaptation to technology that has been a boon for many seniors in the community. Rattan, who moved to Australia in 2005 from New Zealand where he was settled as a GP since 1994, says belonging to senior organisations helped. He was able to do yoga thrice a week and also play bingo and antakshri (singing game) with his peers—thanks to Zoom.

“We overcame covid,” he says with a laugh. “It was a difficult time for seniors, but we found a way out,” says Rattan, who is also vice-president of Sikh temple Tarneit and advisor to the North West Advisory Council of VMC.

Sunil Abbot, who founded Club 60 about six years ago, found Zoom a great medium for the elderly. “When the pandemic started, there were a lot of issues with these people because they were not aware of what will happen to them. Added to it were language and cultural barriers. The initial period was little bit tricky last year. Slowly, when the communications started coming, I organised meetings on Zoom and translated information to them.”

When the restrictions eased a bit in the middle of the year, Abbot was able to organise meetings in community centres and organise staff from health department to give them advice in their own language.

Importantly, he acknowledges the help of few NGOs such as ASHA Global Foundation and IndianCare Inc who helped seniors adapt to technology. Through laptops and iPads, they could use Zoom throughout the pandemic to take part in lectures and activities ranging from Covid hygiene to vaccination to travel.

Sunil Abbott

Club 60 represents a large number of senior migrants coming from different South-East Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, etc., with a majority of them from India. “They basically come to look after their children and grandchildren, some are on bridging visa, some have got their permanent residency or are citizens,” says Abbot, who owns the Jai Ho chain of restaurants.

He believes it was not so much mental issues but the isolation that many of these seniors found hard to cope with. “So they were happy with the online activities. We used to call singers online and arrange few activities.”

Interestingly, Abbot founded Club 60 in 2011, the year he came to Australia on a business visa. Living in Tarneit then, he found many senior members roaming around alone in the parks. “The men were particularly lonely whereas the women kept themselves busy with household chores. Some were upset because of the language barrier and isolation.”

Soon Abbot found himself forming a group and slowly built on it. In time, Wyndham Council recognised the promising work that Club 60 was doing and gave them a council room to meet. “We had a regular thing going for the last six years. Prior to Covid we used to meet three times a week and, eventually, we even got grants to celebrate festivals.”

Today Club 60 has 460 male members and 150 women members and is the largest seniors’ club in Wyndham Vale, says Abbot. “I am passionate about helping all these people.”

Dr Gurdev Rattan

Technology has definitely come to the rescue of these seniors—fixing loneliness arising out of the pandemic. And some like Kanagaratnam say the pandemic has also made them reflect upon life.

“It has come and taught us that there is no need for religion. Religions have come and divided humanity. No one has been to the temple, church or mosques in months but what we are learning now is looking after one another. Every religion teaches that God is nothing but love, and that love has to be shared by thinking of others. We are all becoming one in a global village.”

Until the pandemic, no one had recognized loneliness in such close quarters. But Zoom, among others, has enlivened a lot of lives.

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