WHAT started as a magazine in 1995 for senior citizens called Dignity Dialogue evolved into Dignity Foundation a few years later. The organisation responds to the felt needs of senior citizens by helping them lead active lives through various productive ageing and social support services for elder care.

Raised in an environment of selfless service and dedication to social work, Dr. Sheilu Sreenivasan observed her mother-in-law through her struggle with cancer and understood the needs elder care. After an incident at an airport, she quit her academic career and decided to start the magazine to raise issues concerning the ageing population. She started venturing into care for the elderly in the form of tackling elder abuse, helping them get jobs, offering legal and financial counselling, etc. It was no longer a magazine. To make the world a better place for senior citizens became the priority.

Dr Sreenivasan tells GiveIndia about her passion for elder care, The Dignity Foundation’s COVID relief work, her favourite movies and much more.

GiveIndia: What’s the story behind your passion for working towards the cause of elder care?

Dr Sheilu Sreenivasan: It was an incident that shook me up so much that I decided to give up my job at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and start working for the elderly. It happened at Frankfurt airport, where the  duty manager wanted me to help an abandoned elderly Indian lady who was in a state of trauma. 

She had to be taken to a shelter home nearby, but they could not understand her language and she did not even have a passport or money in her handbag. This incident made me take an oath to myself that I will dedicate the rest of my life working for elder care. On return to India, I resigned from TISS and went on to set up Dignity Foundation as a charitable entity.

GI. The pandemic has only increased loneliness and depression among the elderly. How is your organisation trying to help them?

SS: To move out amidst lockdown orders was an enormous challenge. But a deputy police commissioner helped us with the authority letter to move anywhere in Mumbai to help the elderly. Secondly, as we were receiving phone calls from poorer communities asking for help, we identified large communities and offered rations to senior citizens in need. 

Dignity Foundation

We also went on a fund raising drive with appeals to donate ₹1,200 per person per month. This fund helped us reach out to over 20,000 elderly persons during the pandemic months till to date. We also reached out to the migrant labour with ration supplies.

GI: The foundation believes in skill development for people above 60. What skills do you teach, and how important is this intervention in the present times?

SS: We re-instil in the elderly minds the confidence that age and productivity are not mutually exclusive. We specialise in making bags from recycled newspapers, and older persons in communities are taught the skill to make bags as per market demand. When the local municipal corporation banned the use of plastic bags,  the demand for the paper bags went up helping us with the means to sell.  

The communities formed self help groups (SHGs) and started making bags in Jogeshwari and Mankhurd. Following this, diya-making was also taught. Members bought terracotta diyas, painted them and sold them especially to other NGOs and companies that sent Diwali gifts to clients. At present, we are also training people to make wired bags and masks. Elderly persons are also taught how to market the products.

GI: What piece of advice would you give those who lack effective relationships with the aged and consider them a burden?

SS: Every adult has the filial duty to care for their parents who once raised them. It is a reciprocal responsibility. I will also advise about the convenient solution of admitting parents to old-age homes when home care is not possible for a variety of reasons, and to rely on professional help for the elderly.  Putting parents in an old-age home is not abandonment, if it is because of circumstantial compulsion.

Dignity Foundation - GiveIndia

The financial responsibility taken up by adult children would testify to the fact that they do care for the parents’ welfare. This advice is very topical as there are several reasons a parent cannot be looked after at home. Traditionalists who insist on home care for parents will frown at this. But it is wiser to acknowledge current socio-economic conditions for the younger lot, and the compulsion to prioritise their jobs for ensuring household revenue. If both husband and wife are working, care of the elderly has to be assigned to an outside agency. There is no use fighting the system.

GI: Who is Dr Sheilu Sreenivasan outside Dignity Foundation?

SS: Sheilu’s name is only with the cause she works for. Her reputation is that she is someone who works for the elderly and has established milestones in elder care in India. Over 26 years, the visibility generated for her and her two trusts – Dignity Foundation and Dignity Retirement Township at Neral, 75 kilometres east of Mumbai,  have firmly planted her image in India as a dependable institutional generator for elder care.  

A retired chairperson of a central bank and the National Housing Development Bank once referred to her as an institution builder – an image that has stuck. Outside of these two trusts, she is also known for her civic interests in working along with AGNI in Mumbai.  And championing animal rights through participation in PETA activities in Mumbai.

GI: What movie last made you tear up? If movies don’t make you cry, then which one had the most emotional impact? 

SS: My Sister’s Keeper,  Forrest Gump, and The Pursuit of Happyness made me tear up. A few Bollywood films such as Rang De Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, Baghban, Rockstar and Anand also managed to tug at my heartstrings.

Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan


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