Connectedness: The Golden Key to Senior Wellness

Dr. Vandana Nadig Nair, Co-Founder, ElderAid Wellness First, the Facts
From a macro, national perspective – two realities are stark. We are an aging population, and a large one at that. India is home to one in every ten seniors around the world. By 2050, the estimate for India is 324 million elders. We are completely underprepared for this looming crisis. We have a national scenario of inadequate government relief schemes and policies and poor infrastructure, health insurance schemes are unwilling to cover this age group, pension schemes are erratic and social security as a national mandate is a distant dream, while the service providers are scanty and our public spaces are not elder friendly. The list is endless. A systemic response that focuses on creating an enabling environment for seniors by ensuring relevant and supportive policies, infrastructure, and insurance policies and so on is obviously of paramount importance.

Against this bleak background, there is a vital, nano-level solution to senior issues – Wellness. The essence of senior wellness is holistic. It is both a state and a process. The World Health Organization defines wellness as ‘A state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’, while the National Wellness Institute speaks of wellness as 'a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential.’ While wellness is a universal concept, its relevance to seniors becomes heightened as 'active aging'. Research has clearly established that elders who pursue lifestyles that ensure/aid avoidance of disease and disability, maintenance of high physical and cognitive function, and sustained engagement in social & productive activities significantly reduce the risk of adverse events including health issues and enhances their resilience to cope with day to day challenges.

Let's take the case of Mrs. Bala Sharma, a feisty 82 year old lady who lives by herself. Her married daughters live abroad and she’s determined to protect her
independence for as long as she can. A regular participant in cultural events in her building, she walks for an hour every day, has a bunch of friends, across ages that she meets regularly, ensures she catches every new Bollywood movie (“I like going to the theatre and I love the popcorn!” she says) and controls her diabetes very closely. Our work at ElderAid Wellness spans the realms of preventive support as well as remedial assistance since we offer services that range from running errands to supporting elder volunteering interests to full time caretaker help, accompanying the elder to the hospital / doctor and emergency response, amongst others. We see some clear patterns play out in our work. While posthoc remedial support is the largest ask, there seems to be a positive cycle of wellness amongst ‘well’ elders who reach out to us for assistance.

While wellness is a universal concept, its relevance to seniors becomes heightened as 'active aging'

Children of elders who have had a fall / been hospitalized and need a caretaker reach out for critical, immediate support. Needless to say, the focus in such cases is disproportionately on ensuring that physical health is restored.Well elders who reach out for help typically leverage us for help in running errands, accompanying them for routine health checkups, pursuit of interests and hobbies and often, just to come by and have a cup of tea with them! While I would love to believe that we at ElderAid are the cause of the continued wellness of the second group, I must neatly and squarely attribute it back to the Elder! We(and the rest of their support system) definitely contribute and play a role in it but they, the Well Elders, are the true champions.

A recent workshop with a 100 seniors has unlocked what perhaps could be the Holy Grail of wellness amongst elders. We administered ‘The Wellness Meter’, a simple self-assessment tool created at ElderAid to measure wellness. It invites the respondent to map their own satisfaction with critical dimensions of their life (which are pivotal to an overall sense of wellness and well being) including their physical health, emotional well being, social relationships, financial matters, and so on). This group indicated a very high level of overall satisfaction. The ensuing discussion with the group clearly pointed to the overwhelming centrality of being connected, of social engagement. Staying in touch with family, having friends and family come visit, going out to meet others, spending time talking on the phone, attending social events, were examples that they group shared as being most important contributors to their sense of well being. The sense of love, affection, companionship, attention and connectedness made all the difference. And the positive impact of this engagement on all other aspects of their lives was evident. They reported a sense of positivism, an acceptance of their situation and condition and the willingness to work through challenges. The need for a macro, systemic response persists and the importance of it grows in direct proportion to the burgeoning numbers of elderly in our country. But there exists a quick-fix. Something each of us can do. To make things better for our elders. Spend time with them. Engage them. Call them. Do fun things with them. Take a group of them out. Or if they can’t move, go visit them in their homes. Tell them about your lives. Ask them for fun stories from their lives. Show them you care!