“No one should have to spend their final days in dirt and squalor,” says George Rakesh Babu, a 40-year-old man who has made it his life’s mission to help as many of Hyderabad’s abandoned and sick elderly as possible.
George co-founded the Good Samaritans India trust in 2010, but has been welcoming the needy into his home for a decade now.
A typical day for the 40-year-old involves answering a minimum of eight calls from people telling him about abandoned and sick elderly persons in their areas. Once he finds the person, he goes to the nearest police station to inform them about the rescue, and then he takes the person to one of his three shelters in Alwar, Aler and Warangal.
Run by a caretaker and volunteers, the elderly find care, shelter, companionship and medical attention.
“Half of the day goes in bathing, cleaning and changing their diapers. We get a psychiatrist to come every 45 days to check on the mentally ill inmates we have, like those with dementia or schizophrenia. But more than anything, these shelters are about giving them comfort and dignity,” George says.
How it began
Back in 2008, George, a trained paramedic, ran a medical store. He got acquainted with a Christian priest from Tirunelveli who had set up an orphanage in Hyderabad which housed around 60 boys.
One day, the priest called George to say that he was not feeling well. The priest, it turns out, was having a massive heart attack.
Knowing the end was near, the priest insisted that he stay near George as he had no one else who would take care of him. When he passed away a few days later, and George started to make preparations for his burial, he was hit by another roadblock.
“Every burial ground was concerned about his religion, his caste and what not,” he recalls bitterly. “When I finally found a place, I remember all of those 60 children being there. I remember them weeping over his dead body. That’s when I decided that I would not let anyone die such a nameless death,” George says.
So in 2010, he set up a clinic especially for the elderly. “We used to get many elderly persons who came with the usual complaints - joint pains etc,” he narrates, “but talk to them a little and they would open up. ‘My children are not the same,’ they would say. The stories of neglect would come out. But as they would talk, they would begin to lighten up. Many of them just started turning up in the afternoons. I think they were just happy knowing someone was listening.”
This prompted George to set up his first home for the sick and the elderly – a space where they could feel comfortable and be heard when their homes stopped providing them that comfort.
One of the first cases that George remembers is that of a woman named Vijayalakshmi. The 50-year-old woman was brought to one of Good Samaritans India’s shelters by her husband. Suffering from cervical cancer, Vijayalakshmi was given a week to live by the doctors.
“When her husband brought her in, his wish was for us to ease her pain as much as possible,” George says, “But a little probing revealed that Vijayalakshmi wanted to live, but felt like she had nothing to live for.”
“Her husband had started seeing another woman when she was diagnosed, and was just waiting for her to die, she told us. We called her young sons, but they said they were not comfortable taking care of an elderly woman. She ended up staying at the shelter,” he says.
It was Vijayalakshmi though, who taught George, that a little respect and companionship went a long way.
The sick woman began to open up and blossom at the shelter, and George even convinced her to continue her cancer medication. “She ended up living for a year,” he says with a smile.
George never looked back since. But in the course of the last few years, he has seen some very painful things. “Sometimes, we get people who will bring in an elderly person saying they found them wandering outside their house. Once they leave and we start speaking to the old man or woman, they tell us that the person who left them was none other than their son or daughter,” he says.
Once, George saw an old woman trying to cross a bridge to get to the platform on Kacheguda station, but her feet could barely support her frail frame. “She kept saying she had to go to Guntur,” George recollects.
The woman had been abandoned by her son. But every month, she would still go back home to give whatever she earned from begging for her other son, who was intellectually disabled. “We still see her there sometimes. She refused to stay at the shelter and continues to go to Guntur,” George says.
He has also found many injured and elderly persons who just sit in hospital premises. “Their children bring them there for treatment and then never turn up to take them back. An old man, with a bandage on his head, once said he got so tired of the nurse asking him where his son was that he got up and left. I found him sitting in a corridor outside, surviving on whatever food strangers dropped into his lap,” George narrates sadly.
On other occasions, George has tried contacting children or relatives to perform last rites of one of their inmates who passed away. “Many of them flatly refuse, and say they have nothing to do with their dead father or mother. Others say that they are very busy and they’ll send someone to collect the (death) certificate. They know they will need the document to get the inheritance,” he says.
Initially, George was running the shelters with the help of voluntary donations from family and friends. He even tried to get people to adopt an elderly person through crowdfunding platforms. This means that an individual can contribute by paying a certain amount which will help buy supplies like medicines and diapers, for one elderly person. After many failed attempts, out of the 175 inmates, only six are adopted by people, George rues. The campaign is still ongoing, see it here.
It was only last year that they created their website and Facebook page, and started getting some traction. Things have not been easy for the father of three.
“There were a couple of times in the beginning when my wife packed her bags and threatened to leave. All our resources were going towards the shelters,” he says. However, George says he was able to convince her eventually. His wife, who is also a teacher, now helps him in taking care of the elderly women he sometimes rescues from the streets.
All of this also takes an emotional toll on George. “I am afraid of being sentimental about them (shelters’ inhabitants) now. One day they’re sitting with me, laughing and joking, and the next day, they’re gone,” he says.
But what keeps him going is the relief and happiness he sees in their eyes when they finally believe that they have someone to care for them. “Many of them scream and cry when we try to rescue them and take them to the shelter. But when they have their first proper meal in days, their first loving touch in months, they take my hand and kiss it. They give me their blessing. It’s all worth it then,” George says.