Backed by Ratan Tata, This Startup Connects Lonely Senior Citizens to ‘Grandkids’
Backed by Ratan Tata, The Goodfellows was started by Shantanu Naidu, Niki Thakur and Gargi Sandu, a trio who loved spending time with their grandparents. They want other senior citizens to feel the love of a grandchild and beat loneliness through their unique partnership model.
“You have turned my life around,” Mr Gul Punjabi told Shantanu Naidu, the co-founder of a companionship startup for the elderly. Mr Punjabi was referring to the rollercoaster of happiness and love he had experienced in the months that he was a part of the startup, The Goodfellows’ ‘grandpal’ community.
Though he passed soon after, his words remain etched in Shantanu’s memory. On days he needed to be reminded of the startup’s larger purpose, they served him well.
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Tracing back to how it all shaped up, he credits a natural affinity for the “silver-haired, gold-hearted people” as he fondly calls them. “As soon as I enter a room, I tend to gravitate towards the senior citizens,” he says.
In 2021, determined to alchemise this love into something concrete, Shantanu put out an Instagram story which advertised the idea of connecting the elderly folk of Mumbai with the city’s youth. His DMs (direct messages) were soon flooded with responses. Two stood out for their enthusiasm.
Niki Thakur and Gargi Sandu seemed equally passionate about Shantanu’s idea. As the latter brainstormed with them, he was oblivious to the fact that he had just stumbled upon his two co-founders.
And time ticked fast.
Today, as the three chat with The Better India on spearheading a model which is one of its kind, they talk about the numerous facets that accompany running a business of this scope. But their varied expertise is a bonus.
Each of them brings to the table something unique — Gargi with her background in corporate law, Niki with a background in filmmaking and Shantanu who is the general manager at the office of Mr Ratan N Tata.
Together they envision a social venture with the potential to change the lives of millions of elderly across India.
Rekindling unique bonds
Senior citizens are quick to pick up on the energy of people around them; Shantanu’s interactions with elderly neighbours and relatives led him to this conclusion. So, when it came to designing ‘The Goodfellows’ model, the three decided to bring together two polar opposite generations.
This would ensure the elderly were surrounded by fun and lively youth. “We wanted to create a rich mix,” explains Shantanu.
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With this crux in place, the beta phase of The Goodfellows model was rolled out in August 2021.
The spirited and empathetic youth members are called ‘the goodfellows’, while the elderly who require assistance with tasks or companionship are referred to as ‘ the grandpals’.
Niki, who was a goodfellow during this phase, and also an integral part of designing it, says, “We wanted the bond between the grandpal and the goodfellow to be similar to the relationship shared between a grandparent and grandchild. We asked people we knew to nominate senior citizens looking for company.”
Initial scepticism about whether the model would work was soon replaced with confidence.
Speaking about her own experience of being a goodfellow, Niki calls it transformational. “Dadu (the senior citizen she was paired with) loved watching movies and plays. We had a lot of shared interests.”
Losing his wife during the COVID-19 pandemic meant Dadu was lonely. But he soon had company to look forward to. “Sometimes he’d ask me to accompany him to watch a play. Other times he’d want to go on a walk,” shares Niki, who loved obliging.
Having grown up without a grandfather herself, she came to cherish the relationship she formed with Dadu. “He still introduces me as his granddaughter when we go out,” she smiles.
Along with Niki, the beta phase saw numerous other youths also build special bonds with the grandpals assigned to them. In August 2022, after a year of success, The Goodfellows was formally launched.
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What’s fascinating about the social venture is the human approach to everything they do. Artificial intelligence (AI) has no place here. And rightly so.
Shantanu, who leads the recruitment and pairing process, says, “AI wouldn’t be able to pick up on nuances during the introductory visits to the grandpals’ homes. There is a lot to be taken note of apart from the circumstantial and demographic parameters. This takes a keen eye.”
“Sometimes we see these senior citizens repeating a piece of information frequently. Other times they stop mid-sentence attempting to hold back saying something. These parameters are evaluated during our visits,” Shantanu adds, who then works with the team to come up with a basic character frame.
The grandpal is then paired with a youth who shares the same interests as them. This part of the process too is highly meticulous. “After all, the goal is not to simply fulfil the need for basic companionship but rather to make it a rich experience for both,” notes Shantanu.
In addition to companionship, the model also necessitates that the goodfellow be available when errands need to be run.
Gargi pitches in here saying that these errands could include absolutely anything a grandkid would do. “Some grandpals feel intimidated to go to their doctor’s visits alone. Most of us youngsters too, feel the same. So you can only imagine how isolating it must be for them.”
“Other grandpals might just need someone to have lunch with them because they don’t want to do it alone. Others might need help with shopping errands or travelling by public transport,” she adds. The tasks could be both trivial or vital.
For instance, one of the goodfellows, Soham Pawar (24) recounts having an adventure with his grandpal looking for sandals. “I noticed he needed new slippers and decided to drag him into a shopping spree.” Though hesitant at first, the latter soon joined Soham and the duo spent three hours in pursuit of the perfect pair of sandals.
“Even though our mission didn’t exactly end in victory, I look back on that day with a smile, thankful for the chance to help kaka and create some awesome memories,” Soham laughs.
While some meetings the duo spend together are filled with fun, other times they are educational. As Aarohi Sawant (23) recalls, “Kersi uncle has been my grandpal for the last five months. We genuinely look forward to hanging out. He’s had his fair share of tough moments, but he swears on focusing on the beautiful bits. He has inspired me to hold onto the moments that make life happy.”
It is heartening to watch the bonds fostered between the two generations. But this also means grief when a goodfellow loses a grandpal. “But this is what makes the bond even more special,” says Gargi. “The joy or sadness of someone’s final years depends on the goodfellows.”
She adds that when one of the grandpals passes, the goodfellow is encouraged to take time off for their mental health. “There are also counsellors and psychologists on board who help.”
This also gives an idea of the sheer responsibility of the goodfellows work — a reason behind the stringent recruitment process. While a sea of applicants apply, only a handful are selected.
Shantanu interjects, “In other jobs, the recruiters entice you. But I do the opposite. I give them a blunt lowdown of the whole responsibility that they will have. I then ask them to think it over and come back with an answer.” This ensures that every goodfellow who is part of the team knows what they are signing up for.
Adding life to someone’s days
Mukund and Madhavi Sule, a couple in their seventies, say that the highlight of the week is their goodfellow Rupesh visiting them. Ever since Mukund was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Rupesh has been a constant support to the couple.
“It is with him that Mukund is happy, engaged and willing to live life with fun and mischief. We can trust Rupesh like our own child! Mukund looks forward to Rupesh’s arrival and anticipates their sessions together!” Madhavi shares.
Whether it is writing out passages from the Bhagavad Gita and chanting shlokas, or playing the keyboard together, Mukund and Rupesh are a riot together.
Meanwhile, another grandpal, Rati Dady Wadia (81) calls herself the “luckiest lady in the world”.
The reason she says is her brilliant goodfellow. “She’s tech-savvy and is writing my memoirs. She is intelligent and shows a keen interest in helping me write my book. I often forget what I have written and every time I repeat, my goodfellow remembers and corrects me immediately.”
These stories are what keeps Shantanu, Gargi and Niki going. With the advent of nuclear family models, the elderly are often left alone with only the festival visits to look forward to. But this unique initiative is bringing hope to many.
“We’ve come across so many grandpals who tell us they feel alone. Aside from a few utility people, the bell never rings. But our model is now changing things. They are hopeful and excited on the designated days of the week. They look forward to the bell ringing,” says Niki.
With over 65 goodfellows aged 18 to 24 part of the team, and over 400 grandpals being impacted, the trio sees the future as one filled with hope.
With every step they take, Mr Punjabi’s words ring loudly in their ears. “We’re looking to turn the world around for many people with what we are doing,” Shantanu concludes.
Edited by Padmashree Pande.
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