Living With Dignity


Enrich Your Life After 50

Rashna Ardesher


he lives of senior citizens are far from happy. For many elderly people, the “sunset years?are fraught with hardship.

Sheela is 67 years old. She has three sons and two daughters, all married. Initially, the sons lived with their parents in the same flat, which was in Sheela’s husband’s name. After some time, the two elder sons purchased their own house and moved out. Some years later, Sheela’s husband passed away. The flat was not transferred to Sheela’s name. Her youngest son asked for permission to stay with Sheela and promised to take care of her. Within a few months, he started verbally abusing her. Sheela left her (husband’s) house to stay with her elder son, but he did not allow her to even enter his house. In fact he was intent on grabbing the property. Who could Sheela turn to for help?

Dignity Foundation
Luckily for Sheela, the Dignity Foundation came to her rescue. The Foundation registered a case and did everything within its power to provide relief. In the course of many sessions with different family members, the case was analysed and all parties to the dispute were made aware of Sheela’s predicament. All the family members needed to make adjustments. The Foundation has since satisfactorily solved the problem. Sheela, who had lamented, “I have a home, but I’m not allowed to live there!?now lives in her own (husband’s) flat.

The Dignity Foundation was set up by Dr. Sheilu Sreenivasan, a passionate champion for the cause of senior citizens. An M.A. in Psychiatric Social Work and a Ph.D. in Sociology, Sheilu has received many awards from reputed organisations in India for her social work. The Dignity Foundation started with the publication of a magazine, Dignity Dialogue, in 1995. With articles contributed by senior citizens, as well as specialist doctors, sociologists, psychologists and other professionals, the objective of Dignity Dialogue is to debate and discuss issues of relevance to senior citizens. The issues tackled include coping with retirement, motivating seniors to remain lively by taking an interest in life around them, mobilising their participation in building a more caring society and maintaining a network of associations and organisations working for the welfare of senior citizens.

Dignity Services
Within the short span of one year, the Dignity Foundation added need-based services for the elderly. The goals of the Foundation in providing services are two-fold:

1. To rid senior citizens of the fear that age means decline. The Foundation works assiduously to re-instil in the elderly the confidence that age and productivity are not mutually exclusive.
2. To change the mindset of senior citizens who think that retirement means loneliness, isolation and loss of prestige.

The services provided by the Dignity Foundation are:

Dignity Companionship: A good, strong social support system is vital for senior citizens. According to author Josh Billings, “Solitude is a good place Josh Billings, “Solitude is a good place to visit, but a poor place to stay.?Often, a caller reports feelings such as boredom, loneliness, depression, as he/she is either living alone or the children are away at work or not living in the same city?The elderly need someone to keep them company in the house, to accompany them for a walk and to share their interests.

Have you ever heard of senior citizens learning to dance? Well, the Dignity Foundation and Monisha Bharadwaj Danceworks, the dance company based in London and Mumbai, invited senior citizens to participate in a 10-day workshop series to create performance pieces, including dance, theatre, music and costumes.

The Dignity volunteer, who is trained in simple skills of counselling and rendering help, is there to assist, guide, be supportive, to involve the caller (client) in meaningful activities and to encourage him/her to meet other people. The volunteers, through regular interaction with clients and their families, help to identify ways to eliminate their loneliness.


A Dignity Foundation volunteer ties the Suraksha Bandhan band for senior citizens, symbolising inter-generational bonding on 1 October, World Elders Day.

Dignity Helpline: This started as a telephonic extension of the Dignity Companionship service. However, today it is reserved exclusively to help and rescue senior citizens in cases of abuse, harassment, neglect and denial of rights. Recently, a new Dignity Helpline was launched by newly-elected Member of Parliament, Milind Deora, at Girgaum Chowpatty, Mumbai. The Helpline aims to reach out to senior citizens through a red card that bears the Helpline number 23898078.

All it takes is a call. Well-trained Dignity volunteers are sent to the residences of such citizens on a fact-finding mission. In most cases, counselling by itself is not sufficient. Additional assistance is often required for effective and speedy redressal of grievances. A referral network providing legal aid, presenting the matter to a reconciliation forum comprising retired members of the judiciary, civil and police services, psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors and social workers, providing police assistance, psychological assistance, etc., has been put in place to deal with grievances.

Dignity Second Careers: As Anna Robertson Brown succinctly put it in her book, What is Worth While?: “Be wise in the use of time. The question in life is not ‘how much time do we have??The question is ‘what shall we do with it?’” The Dignity Foundation enables senior citizens to seek a productive occupation of their choice that can enrich their lives before and after retirement. The Foundation provides opportunities to explore career options, job placements, core consultancy enrichments, one-man business opportunities and motivates the elderly to pursue a passion or a hobby.

Dignity Civic Service: The Foundation joined hands with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) towards achieving the objective of “Keeping Mumbai Clean? Dignitarians have been appointed for the various BMC zones spread over wards. There are also Chief Dignitarians who lead and monitor activities in each of these ward areas. They mobilise, coordinate and report actions initiated, and also initiate discussions for new ideas, improvement of programmes, discussion of grievances and solving grievances through consensus. They liaise with local ward officers and undertake supervisory roles wherever required. The Foundation then coordinates reports from all the wards and submits them to the BMC. The organisation has appointed one Project Director and two Deputy Project Directors to help ward Dignitarians to organise and extend timely volunteer help to the Corporation.


Members of the Dignity Foundation undertake a padyatra for the “Keep Mumbai Clean?campaign.

Security With Dignity: As suggested by the Mumbai police, the Dignity Foundation has mobilised a volunteer force of wardens to ensure the physical safety of senior citizens. The Foundation promptly identified police station areas prone to crime against senior citizens, and formed a group of volunteers called Dignity Wardens. These wardens identify the elderly living alone in each area, collect information on their living conditions, security aspects of their residence and neighbourhood and other relevant aspects of their safety. Senior citizens are encouraged to register with the Dignity Foundation and wardens keep in close touch with them, advise them of perceived threats and the precautions to be taken, monitor domestic servants and, generally, alert them to potential dangers. However, there is a need to train these wardens in self-defence so that they in turn can train other senior citizens.

Sheilu Sreenivasan observes: “This is the only service of the Foundation which needs to be upgraded. We need Government permission to enter cooperative housing societies, to have individual meetings with senior citizens to educate them about their security needs. We have to change the mindset of senior citizens who think that it is the Government’s duty to take care of their security. The police can support us only if the Deputy Chief Minister (who is also the Home Minister) gives directions.

“Besides, there are project expenses such as database maintenance, leaflet printing, training programmes of volunteers, etc. This particular programme has incorporated the role corporate volunteers would play in guiding warden groups. Each group will be under a corporate volunteer who will of course be trained in data systems management.?br>
Sheilu adds: “Corporate volunteers are doing social work during office hours. Why, ILGFS gave us their Marketing Manager to brainstorm one of our projects. ABN Ambro Bank gave us 10 computers. There are many advertising companies which have given us skills in communication. This is corporate social work. Corporations can support us not only by funding, but also by giving us socially-inclined young executors.?br>
Senior Citizens Counselling Centre: The Rotary Club of Bombay Pier and Dignity Foundation together set up the Senior Citizens Counselling Centre in Mumbai. The elderly can seek free guidance in the fields of finance, law, insurance, medicine, property purchase and travel, etc.

Dignity Culturals: Every fortnight Dignity members come together to get to know each other and socialise.

Have you ever heard of senior citizens learning to dance? Well, the Dignity Foundation and Monisha Bharadwaj Danceworks, the dance company based in London and Mumbai, invited senior citizens to participate in a 10-day workshop series to create performance pieces, including dance, theatre, music and costumes. The workshop was a success, and it was the first time that a project of this kind had been undertaken in India.


Ashok B. Modi became the first senior citizen in India to receive an ID card from Vilasrao Deshmukh, Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Also seen are Sheilu Sreenivasan, Founder, Dignity Foundation, and M.N. Singh, former Commissioner of Police, Mumbai.

Other Firsts
The Dignity Foundation has another first to its credit, a landmark in the history of the senior citizens movement in India. At a function organised by the Dignity Foundation and the Rotary Club of Bombay Pier in 2001, an all-purpose Government-authorised ID card was issued by Vilasrao Deshmukh, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra. The card not only establishes the senior citizen’s identity and proof of age, but also acts as a medical card in an emergency, giving details such as the holder’s blood group, illness, if any, medication in use and allergies. Tata Infotech Ltd. is examining the possibility of computerising the process of making ID cards for the Foundation.

The Dignity Foundation had also approached Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd. in 2002. The Foundation’s senior citizen volunteers, a mobile team, gave forms to all the Godrej employees to make ID cards for themselves (if they are senior citizens) and their senior citizen relatives. They collected the forms later and issued the cards. A similar exercise was undertaken with other corporations.

Another initiative undertaken by the Dignity Foundation in collaboration with the South Mumbai police in 2002 is the Jeshta Nagarik Sunwayi (We Speak, You Listen), which provides a public platform for senior citizens to voice their problems to a panel of eminent personalities from various fields such as property consultants, advocates, clinical psychologists, social workers and, of course, the Mumbai police.

Financial Corpus
The Dignity Foundation is funded by subscriptions to Dignity Dialogue, membership fees, donations from philanthropic organisations and individuals, and sponsorships from banks and companies for specific projects. The nucleus of a corpus has been set up with the help of donations. However, mobilisation of the corpus is the crucial need of the day. The Foundation still needs more corporate support to sponsor its projects, give it more visibility and create awareness among people. The Foundation set up chapters in Kolkata and Chennai in 2000 and 2001, respectively.

Sheilu’s immediate priorities are “to reach out to every senior citizen in Mumbai, fan out all my projects. If the Government gives me support, gives the Foundation that authenticity on all its projects and programmes, public recognition and acceptability will be much higher. My second priority is the response system. We are already getting a good response from citizens.?br>
The cause of senior citizens has no doubt been taken up very late in India compared to other developed countries. There is still not enough awareness of the problems of the elderly, which are becoming more severe with every passing day. The population of senior citizens in India is increasing. This means that the younger generation has a large population of senior citizens to support. Besides, youngsters are migrating abroad for better opportunities. This further increases the loneliness of senior citizens. There is hardly any other organisation like the Dignity Foundation, which gives emotional and social support to senior citizens.

The Foundation is only meant for citizens who are above 50 years of age, who have more or less fulfilled their family obligations and now want to devote time and effort to social causes, and, most importantly, who believe in the dignity of ageing. Dignitarians do not look for name, fame, money or position in getting involved in good work, but believe in holding their heads high in society. So, do you wish to grow older happily and healthily like a true Dignitarian or do you wish to simply get old?