Scores of Indians are left with the stressful task of caring for their parents from afar, coordinating everything from essentials to keeping them safe and indoors.

How Indians are caring for parents from afar during lockdownPexels
Coronavirus Coronavirus Thursday, April 02, 2020 - 13:16

In some ways, Deepan Kannan feels like he’s switched roles with his parents. Growing up, his mother would keep track of his outings with friends, and though they weren’t terribly strict, his parents would intervene if they felt like he had crossed the line. But as the world began to reel from the fast-spreading coronavirus infection and a spate of cases emerged in India, Deepan has turned to monitoring his parents from another city.

Deepan, 37, lives in Bengaluru and works in sustainable fashion while his parents, both 65 and retired, reside in Chennai. For him, one of the most challenging parts of the COVID-19 pandemic is keeping track of his father who has spent his life in constant motion, whether it’s going to the store, taking walks or visiting family.

“He’s someone who cannot stay inside the house,” Deepan says. He, however, fears that his father’s need to step out of the house may lead to a COVID-19 infection, which he could pass on to Deepan’s mother, who has diabetes and hypertension.

To urge his father to stay inside, without being physically present, has been more than a stressful challenge for Deepan. He’s appealed to his relatives to speak to his father and he’s even posted on Facebook asking his friends to tell his father to stay inside.

“I have to spend so much time monitoring his movements,” Deepan says. “The roles are reversed now.”

It’s a situation that many Indians around the country and the world are facing right now. The 21-day countrywide lockdown announced last week put an end to both international and domestic travel, forcing many to check on their parents from a city or country away. Even prior to the lockdown, many stayed away from their parents as the coronavirus can have a severe effect on an older population as well as those with certain pre-existing health conditions. What’s more, the younger generation could be carriers of the virus and unwittingly pass it on even if they show no symptoms.

That means scores of Indians are left with the stressful task of caring for their parents from hundreds and thousands of kilometres away, coordinating everything from medicines and groceries to keeping their parents safe and indoors amidst a pandemic that’s infected over 2,000 in India till date.

Restrictions in help and deliveries

Numerous Resident Welfare Associations across the country have banned household help from entering apartment complexes, to curb the spread of COVID-19. This has also brought new problems for older people who live alone and may be dependent on others for help.

“He hasn’t cooked for the last eight to nine years,” Sneha Banerjee, a 31-year-old media professional who lives in Bengaluru, says, describing her 66-year-old father in Kolkata. She’s also faced difficulties ordering groceries through e-commerce sites for her dad.

And though he is managing his meals with certain dishes he can make, like khichdi and tea with milk powder, Sneha is understandably anxious, “I know that’s not a staple diet.”

The restrictions in residential complexes have also put a strain on delivery networks, which grown-up children once relied on. Before the lockdown, 42-year-old Ananya Dasgupta, who lives in Delhi, could call the supermarket near her parent’s home in Kolkata and have groceries delivered, a simple system that’s no longer possible during the lockdown.

Though she was able to arrange live-in caregivers for her elderly parents, both of whom have health concerns, there are constant limitations to helping them over the phone. For example, her parents have only been able to get 2 kilograms of rice from the grocery store, which can get over quickly when there are four people to feed in a household. And when a delivery agent could not bring a water canister into the apartment complex, Ananya had to make multiple phone calls to find someone who would be able to help carry the canister to her parents’ home.

“I was frantically calling people who would be able to help me,” she says. “There’s a lot of coordination and there’s a lot of anxiety.”

Staying indoors

“Typically that generation is not the kind to sit at home the whole day,” says Siddharth*, who lives in Bengaluru, while his 77-year-old mother is in Mysuru.

It’s a characteristic of the age group that many have had to grapple with in recent weeks, as officials have warned against stepping out unnecessarily. In Deepan’s case, the lockdown has reduced his father’s ability to get around as public transportation is limited. “The lockdown has helped him understand the gravity of the situation,” he says.

Still, the lockdown is a strain on those who look forward to daily walks, errands, and visits with friends and relatives, all of which is now strictly monitored by their children and local authorities. Deepan’s father hasn’t been able to see his 90-year-old mother, who also lives in Chennai, to maintain social distance in times of COVID-19.

Even for essentials, the advice is to stay inside. Ananya’s 68-year-old mother is currently facing a health concern that would require them to visit the family physician, but instead they must only consult with him over the phone.

Sneha has advised her dad to watch old cricket matches on TV and download Hotstar to keep his mind occupied as he’s unable to work during the lockdown. “That whole itch to go out every evening is a problem,” she says.

When seeing your parents isn’t an option

Officials in several states have been requesting the public to avoid travelling in the city, except in case of an emergency. But many people have been shuttling between two areas in the same city to visit their elderly parents and check up on them. In such scenarios, officials have requested people to take their parents home to stay with them. However, that isn’t always an easy ask.

For instance, Meena B and her parents, who are above 80 years old, live in two different houses in Kochi. Every day, she drives to her parents’ house and even buys groceries and medicines for them. “I asked them to stay with me until the lockdown is lifted as it was getting difficult for me to manage work and my daily chores, which includes thoroughly washing all the items I buy. Besides, they have a lot of health issues. But they are adamant and are refusing to leave their house,” she says.

Not everyone has the option of even seeing their parents on a limited basis though. Deepan, who used to frequently visit his parents, has not been back for two months. And even though Siddharth’s mother lives in the neighbouring city of Mysuru, travel restrictions prevent him from driving over there.

“It’s frustrating that I’m actually only two and a half hours away and I can’t go see her,” he says.

After quitting her job in October, Ananya had hoped to visit her parents once a month, but her plans have been put on hold until the lockdown passes. “Sometimes you feel really helpless.” 

Keeping spirits up

While daily calls have become the norm, many go so far as to admonish and instruct their parents to try to gain a modicum of control and take care for their loved ones from different cities.

Kirthana Lakshmanan, who works as a Business Analyst in Singapore, talks to her parents in Trichy every day to keep them occupied. Thanks to her constant nagging, her parents stocked up on medicines and essentials like rice and lentils a little before the COVID-19 situation took a turn, and their local pharmacist is able deliver medicines if needed. Both her parents, as well as her 80-year-old grandmother who lives with them, have underlying health conditions.

“I gave them the idea of starting intermittent fasting so that they can keep track of their health, save groceries and not indulge in snacking. I also remind them to stay fit by using the treadmill or lifting weights in the garden, and importantly, to utilise the time to take rest,” Kirthana says.

“Sitting miles away, we are helpless. Reminding them to do these little activities keeps us going and we know they are safe,” she adds.

Sindhu Eradi, who lives in Dubai, while her parents, who are diabetic, live in Purnea, Bihar, has also been calling them more frequently. “But except for calling them, there is nothing much I have been able to do for them. These are the times I really wish we were together with the family. Lockdown would have been more fun and definitely more peaceful,” she says.

And while Sukanya D, who lives in Bengaluru, doesn’t have to worry too much about her parents’ day-to-day needs as they are fairly self-reliant, she video calls them in Chennai twice a day to check on them, enquire about their day, food and other needs.

“If there is anything that can be done online, like bill payments, ordering groceries or food online or updating them on COVID-19 news from the government, I help them with that too,” she says.

“I think it is more to do with keeping their morale up than actually helping them do their chores and taking care of their needs,” Sukanya adds.

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