In 2019, an NGO focused on working for rehabilitation and welfare of senior citizens, HelpAge India, released a shocking report about the state of abandonment followed by the destitution of the elderly. According to this report, titled Home Care for the Elderly: A Call to Action, India was said to have the second-largest population of senior citizens, with a majority of them living “a life of destitution, ill health, neglect and abuse”.
Another organisation, Bengaluru-based Nightingales Medical Trust (NMT) found that out of 25,000 homeless people estimated by the city’s civic body, 7,500 were elderly women abandoned by their children.
These are not mere numbers but lives left to decay on the streets, a thought that irked an Ahmednagar-based doctor couple into action.
Dr Rajendra Dhamane and Dr Sucheta Dhamane, 1998 graduates from Kakasaheb Mhaske Homeopathic Medical College in Ahmednagar, decided to start their medical practice. But beyond treating regular patients, they would also organise free health check-up camps and feed the poor and homeless on the streets.
“We always wanted to work for a social cause and decided to start helping the needy on the streets, back in 2000. On our visits, we would sometimes find the elderly abandoned by their children. While many of them were mentally ill, most could not manage to earn a living,” Dr Rajendra tells The Better India.
Witnessing the on-ground severity of this problem led the duo to start Mauli Seva Pratishthan the same year. The goal of their NGO was to feed about 90 homeless people a day. But an incident in 2007 changed their course and moved the couple to do more.
“I was going to the clinic when I saw one destitute woman scavenging through a waste bin for food and eating faeces. I felt sad looking at her condition and offered my packed tiffin. At that moment, something changed in me,” says 46-year-old Dr Rajendra, who shared the incident with his wife. Upon further discussion, they both realised that they had to do more than just feed the needy. They had to provide them with a safe space.
Hence, they decided to expand their scope of work and help hundreds of homeless women end their suffering by offering them a home.
A Home Away From Home
The problem of homeless senior citizens is worse than it looks on the surface. Explaining the gravity of the situation, Dr Sucheta says, “Many women are abandoned by their families due to mental health and need help. On many occasions, when we fed people, women often shared their issues of safety and incidences of rape that went unreported.”
She adds, “A mentally ill woman is very vulnerable, and even if she raises the issue or wants to report it to the police, no one believes her due to her health condition. So, to avoid visibility from predators at night, these women often sleep on road dividers or street corners.”
At the NGO, many women underwent such harrowing experiences.
One of them, an elderly victim, says, “I was raped by two men a few years ago and when I informed them that I would report them to the police, they threatened to kill me. All my family members died, including my son, owing to different reasons, and eventually I found my home in this centre.”
On many occasions, even financially stable families give up on their mothers and relatives suffering from mental illnesses.
“Mental illness should be treated like any other disease. Timely medical care can prevent the health condition of the patient from deteriorating further. We aim to stop such instances where women end up on the streets and become vulnerable to all possible threats,” Dr Sucheta says.
She adds that the problem for homeless women on the streets is much more critical than that for men.
“As a woman, I could see a problem in front of me, so how could I not take steps to address it? The women needed shelter and safety from abuse and a place to receive medical attention. Mental health is a sensitive topic and is usually neglected in society. We wanted to put an end to their suffering by addressing all these needs,” she adds.
Once the decision was made, Dr Rajendra approached his father—Bajirao, a retired teacher—requesting help to set up a shelter home for the destitute. His father had 6,000 square feet of land on the outskirts of the city which was used to start a residential centre — a haven for women above 18 years of age.
“We provide food, clothing and shelter to all the women in need. Those with mental health or physical health issues also receive appropriate medical care at any time. Most of them live here for the rest of their lives as family members usually do not accept them even after the treatment,” Dr Rajendra says.
Speaking about their daily routine, he says that everyone wakes up at 6 am for breakfast. Volunteers assist them every step of the way. While the patients with specific medical care are attended to separately, those who have recovered assist in daily chores.
Dr Rajendra says that donations from various entities fund the entire functioning of the NGO. “We never approached nor received any support from the government,” he adds.
So far, they have rescued over 500 women, of which some have passed away due to old age or illness, while the majority, 350 of them, continue to live wholesome lives at the centre.
“Many of the rape survivors went on to give birth. Today, we are custodians of 29 such children who are growing up in a safe and happy environment,” adds Dr Rajendra.
One of the rescued women, Monica Salvi, arrived at the centre in 2013, battling severe depression. “I faced emotional and mental issues and tried to seek treatment with private hospitals and doctors, but in vain. Eventually, my family left me, thus worsening my mental health. But I was lucky to find out about Mauli Seva Pratishthan in time,” she says.
After undergoing a one-year-long treatment she recovered from depression and began her journey towards living a healthier life.
“Eventually, I started participating in daily activities at the place and became part of it. Now, I take care of children as many of their mothers are not mentally or emotionally stable to raise them. It gives me satisfaction to take care of the children. I want to see them become independent in life,” says Monica.
When working in the social sector, only good intentions are not enough, shares Dr Rajendra, who spent years building trust in society and government agencies.
“We were accredited and registered with the Mental Health Authority of Maharashtra from day one, but the authorities questioned our intent and doubted whenever we approached to seek permissions,” he recalls.
On some occasions, even performing last rites and completing medical formalities for the women would become a challenge. “We spent years convincing the officials and explaining our work. We did have support from our respective families, but the people around us mocked us and even doubted our success,” he adds.
At times, when they have to attend cases of women with physical injuries and need for urgent medical attention, they struggle for funds and have to routinely identify new donors.
To address this, the couple is working on a few sustainable revenue models. “We have set up a dairy farm and a baking unit on the premises, which will generate employment and earn revenue for the organisation. This move will ensure assured medicines and timely care for all,” he says.
But working on grassroots, one always ends up evaluating the kind of impact they are making. What may sometimes seem like a drop in the ocean, is actually a wave of transformation.
“Sometimes, I feel that we have hardly helped 500 women, and we should set up a bigger facility to house 1,000 to 2,000 women in need. But on the other hand, I feel that the issue should be addressed at the root, so that there is no need for institutions like ours. Families should stop abandoning their relatives on the streets for having a mental illness,” says Dr Sucheta.
Edited by Ananya Barua