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Twilight saga: elder helpline houseful

Pronam, the lifeline of the elderly and alone, has stopped taking new members after growing from 200 to 10,000 within three years in a city whose ageing population is increasingly being left to fend for itself.

Calcutta police’s joint venture with The Bengal promises emergency assistance to its members, mental support, safety and security. A Pronam membership is sought after not only for the assurance of help when needed but also for fringe benefits such as passes for concerts or tours of Puja pandals.

“Membership was first restricted to senior citizens (single and couples) who have no family or support system here. But because of various programmes that Pronam organises such as the Puja Parikrama, many elderly people who live with their children have become members too,” Sundeep Bhutoria of The Bengal told Metro.

He said Pronam had stopped taking more people under its wing because it does not have the manpower to handle a larger community of elderly people. “Calcutta police too do not have enough personnel to serve more members, especially after the added areas came under their purview,” Bhutoria explained.

The rush for help shows the loneliness of the elderly in Calcutta, a city the young tend to flee for a brighter future. According to the 2011 census, Calcutta has a 60-plus population of 5,29,154, about 11.3 per cent of the total head count.

Officers familiar with the registration process at Pronam said that once an applicant submits a filled-in form at the local police station along with details of family members, only the date of birth is checked to ensure that he or she is a senior citizen. “There is practically no cross-checking of whether the applicant stays alone or not,” a police officer said.

Bhutoria said The Bengal was considering “restricting membership to senior citizens who don’t live with their families from now on”. But he assured members that the existing list won’t be pruned.

A 68-year-old Jadavpur resident called the Pronam helpline recently, only to be asked to check a fortnight later because registration had been suspended. “I asked for a specific date but the lady who took my call was unable to give one. I had heard a lot about the programme and it was disappointing to be refused,” said the retired government officer, whose only son lives in the US.

Calcutta police denied that Pronam had run into a membership logjam. “Why would applications not be accepted? I am unaware of any such thing…. You please talk to the project administrator,” said Debasish Roy, the additional commissioner of police-III who is in charge of the project on behalf of city police.

Pronam has 10,091 registered members, though the actual number is 9,496 after accounting for deaths. The last member was registered on December 3, 2013, a source said.

The original objective of Pronam was to assign teams of constables, homeguards and volunteers led by an assistant sub-inspector of police each to check on the Pronam members of their area every alternate day. Members say that hardly happens.

“A homeguard comes to see us maybe twice a month. But we feel really insecure at this age, especially because of the antisocial elements in the neighbourhood, and I think the purpose of Pronam would have been served better if there was greater police visibility,” said a 63-year-old member living with his wife in south Calcutta.

According to doctors, “keeping in touch” is the most important aspect of supporting the elderly. A recent American study has added to the growing body of research showing how loneliness leaves them more vulnerable to illness.

Loneliness in old age is twice as bad for health as obesity, warn scientists. American researchers had tracked the lives of 2,101 retired adults aged 50 years and over for six years.

These people were asked questions about whether they had people they felt in tune with or who they could talk to. After accounting for social circumstances, such as whether people were married or lived near family and friends, the researchers found that people who reported feeling lonely were 14 per cent more likely to die during that period than those who didn’t.

“This compares with a 7 per cent increase in mortality risk for obese people,” John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, said during a talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Lalbazar’s partner NGO said a little more help would boost Pronam. “The Bengal is in the process of opening two sub-centres, one near Tollygunge, the other in Phoolbagan. The rooms have been identified but operations can’t start till more funds are generated to equip those centres, and there is more support from the police. The monthly cost is now Rs 4 to 5 lakh,” Bhutoria said.

But for those waiting to be enrolled, the wait could be a long one.

Are you in the queue for Pronam membership? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com