The pain came through in his words. My former colleague, a journalist located at another extreme end of the country who lost his spouse some time back in a deadly gas-cylinder accident at his home, wrote recently: “What do lonely old men do when it is raining outside? Drink? Watch TV? Read? Clean the house? No companion. What to do? Read the Bible?”
Elsewhere, I noticed he wrote: “Living alone. It’s good when you are in good health. But, when you fall sick, then life gets problematic.”
In my neighbourhood earlier this month, there was some other shocking news to be heard. It was the kind of news the details of which might not even make it to the newspapers. Apparently, a middle-aged person living alone had not been seen for many months. Family members located in other parts of the globe had been conducting a search as far away as in Australia. From what details one could piece together, subject to correction, some neighbours thought of checking the home. But they didn’t persist and shot down ideas of probing further into the slight foul smell.
Turns out that the person concerned had died all alone. The body – actually just the skeleton – was found many months later, that too in the midst of an inhabited village.
Such is the face of loneliness in our day and age. In a Goa which gets more ‘developed’, more fragmented and more individualised, these are issues which we are increasingly going to be confronted with.
Traditional systems are breaking down, the new ones are yet to fit the bill. At one point of time, the system of marriage by proposals would work, and traditional match-makers would wear out the allegorical seven (or is it 12?) pairs of sandals to fix up a matrimonial alliance. Today, that is not acceptable to the younger generation, and many may still be searching for their match.
Churches like Panaji and centres like Pilar have their own modernised forms of match-making, which involves young singles meeting up, on appointed days and maybe over lunch, in the hope that something clicks. But being married and having children is no fool-proof antidote against loneliness in itself, given that marriages are also fragile these days, for many complex reasons, and Goa’s children still need to migrate far and wide for suitable jobs. One can also be lonely within a family.
Not too long back, the innovative Literati bookshop in Calangute was host to a release of the book ‘Status Single’ which saw fashion designer Wendell Rodricks chair a discussion between author the journalist Sreemoyee Piu Kundu and others. Such events can sometimes turn into a slanging match between the genders. But the bitterness over relationships that didn’t work is no answer to the need to tackle the loneliness crisis that is going to affect many of us. TEDx has some amazing talks on the varied dimensions of loneliness and why it is so deadly, including in its health implications.
In Goa, the Church has attempted to build some networks for single or widowed women, and there has even been a book or two published on this subject. As would be expected, it looks at the issue more from a religious and spiritual perspective. Online, one can come across advisories telling single women visiting Goa which are the best places to travel, or what are the norms for ‘safe’ behaviour, etc.
But all such initiatives would probably not cope with the loneliness plague that is clearly on its way. Our lifestyles are not helping, neither are our expectations. A clue also comes from the figures: Goa has the second-largest proportion of ‘old dependency population’ (aged 60 and above), which is 11.2 per cent of the population here, according to figures from 2013.
To make matters worse, our senior citizens’ population is hardly incorporated productively into society. There is only a little role given to them to play, and the skills they have accumulated over a lifetime are treated as useless. In other parts of the world, concepts like life-long learning, people functioning in an emeritus capacity, or retiree-volunteers have actually extended the working life of people. It’s not a question of how much they earn, or whether they block young people from taking up jobs, but how our senior citizens could actively contribute to society and keep themselves healthy while doing so.
In the 1980s or thereabouts, Goa (and particularly institutions like the Catholic Church) built a spate of homes for the elderly, once called aged homes. These have served their purpose and still offer succour to those needed it badly. But much more needs to be done. The other day, some young programmers working on a start-up apps competition, came up with the idea of how they could match the skills available among the elderly with unfulfilled tasks in society.
Perhaps the first step would be to recognise the seriousness of the problem that we are about to face and to involve educational and other social work institutions in actively looking for solutions.