SHEILU SRINIVASAN

India,

Throughout India, Sheilu Srinivasan is mobilizing "dignitarians" (men and women over 50) in a movement to provide opportunities and life-enrichment services that enable senior citizens to lead productive and rewarding lives.

This profile below was prepared when Sheilu Srinivasan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.

INTRODUCTION

Throughout India, Sheilu Srinivasan is mobilizing "dignitarians" (men and women over 50) in a movement to provide opportunities and life-enrichment services that enable senior citizens to lead productive and rewarding lives.




THE NEW IDEA

The Dignity Foundation seeks to create a new social safety net for Indian seniors that addresses the challenges they face in today's society. More and more retirees in India find that they are not able to depend on their children, who live overseas, for everyday needs. Many are vulnerable to harassment, violence, and abuse, sometimes by their own family members. Many feel lonely or neglected. The Dignity Foundation is giving society's elders a forum where they can help not just themselves but also others.

Sheilu created the Dignity Foundation, a membership organization with chapters in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune, Chennai, and Jamshedpur, to organize senior citizens to address the social needs of all seniors within their communities. By allowing senior citizens for the first time to be involved as people in charge of their own lives and able to share their wealth of experience with fellow citizens, Sheilu is carving out a place for retirees as significant contributors to Indian society.




THE PROBLEM

As the human lifespan increases, the number of elders in India grows, today making up almost 7 percent of the total population. Yet while their numbers expand, seniors find their safety nets shrinking. Traditionally in India, people have lived among extended family and close friends in the same neighborhood for generations. Today, with increasing urbanization and soaring real estate prices, high-rise apartment buildings are replacing tight-knit neighborhood communities, and neighbors are strangers. People seeking overseas job opportunities have left a generation of elders alone, unattended, and uncared for.

For many dignitarians, the "empty nest" becomes unbearable; they feel lonely and depressed. After leading a full and active life, they now see themselves as unimportant. Their children and society expect nothing from them, and they are left feeling despondent. In fact, they are left on the periphery. Society does not provide education about or training for the aging.

As grown children move away to find better economic opportunities, the family network weakens, and many elderly become vulnerable to harassment, violence, and abuse. In 2002, between January and November, 16 senior citizens were murdered in Mumbai. Seniors need not only emotional and financial support but security as well.

While senior citizens often feel neglected and increasingly isolated from their families and communities, many are healthy and able, desiring interaction with others and a renewed sense of self-worth. Many also need income to supplement their life savings as they support themselves through old age. There is an increasing need to find a new concept of "community." Sheilu's vision is a system that provides help and companionship among seniors. She also aims to strike a balance between the affluent class and those who are not in a position to access paid services, thus broadening the network of support among dignitarians.




THE STRATEGY

While most social welfare programs in India target senior citizens as persons who are deserted, dependent, and in need of shelter, and thus in need of charity and sympathy, Sheilu focuses on opportunities to merge ideals of selfless service with productive aging.

After studying the social service schemes of the United States and United Kingdom, and also looking at the Lions and Rotary Clubs, Sheilu modeled her Dignity Foundation on AARP (formerly American Association of Retired People) to suit India's needs. Sheilu launched Dignity Foundation–Senior Citizens Life Enrichment Services with the magazine, Dignity Dialogue, the Voice of the Dignitarians. Sheilu designed the magazine to provide: information on health, money matters, hobbies, new books, films, and events; motivation, including "psychological push-ups" and brain teasers to exercise the mind; suggestions on income generation activities and features on productive individuals; inspiration in profiles of individuals who have achieved life fulfillment despite obstacles and in articles, prose, and poetry written by other senior citizens on their life stories, experiences, joys, and sorrows.

Dignity Dialogue is published in English in order to reach the nonresident Indian (NRI) population as well. She plans to publish issues in local languages soon.

Sheilu has expanded Dignity Foundation services to include Dignity Helpline, Dignity Companionship, Dignity Second Careers, and Dignity Homes. Her goal is to make Dignity Foundation a "one-stop solution" providing the wide range of services that senior citizens require.

Dignity Helpline responds instantly to seniors' distress calls, which range from family disputes and harassment to contemplation of suicide. Trained social workers direct registered, trained volunteers to visit the caller and investigate the issue. Dignity Helpline's network of local professionals and police offers assistance when needed. This service is provided free of charge to members and nonmembers alike, with no restrictions based on class, caste, or language. As the only helpline catered exclusively to senior citizens, it is widely accessed.

Dignity Companionship seeks to dispel the loneliness and helplessness that overcome many senior citizens. Volunteers visit elders and engage them in conversation and meaningful activity–escorting them on walks, taking them to a film, or accompanying them to the hospital. A growing number of working adults rely on this service to provide their aged parents with agreeable company during working hours.

Dignity Second Careers helps dignitarians "relaunch" themselves in remunerative employment. Dignity Foundation members can avail themselves employment programs in the midst of a decreasing job market and the growing popularity of voluntary retirement schemes. For instance, Sheilu has established a partnership with the government whereby dignitarians serve the government as dedicated, experienced, mature workers who can guide younger, less experienced employees. Similarly, ICICI Bank has given contracts to dignitarians for ATM housekeeping, by which dignitarians earn income and the Dignity Foundation receives a small percentage to cover its administrative costs. Dignity Second Careers also guides dignitarians to drive community services. Through these efforts, dignitarians are gradually becoming respected leaders in society.

Sheilu currently is building Dignity Homes at the foot of Matheran Hill, a three-hour drive from Mumbai. It will be a full-service community for the increasing number of senior citizens who live on their own, as well as for the aging Indian diaspora who return for a few months each year. Dignity Homes will ensure that residents' daily requirements, medical needs, and safety are met.

The initial community will accommodate 400 senior citizens in independent, single and double units with centralized catering and housekeeping. The community will also include other facilities, a meditation center, a computer room, a library, a club, a medico-herbal farming area, and more. In collaboration with an Australian group, Dignity Homes is building a Geriatric Medical Care Unit with capacity for 100 residents. As a for-profit company, Dignity Homes will be an independent organization managed by an independent board of directors. A portion of the profits will help to fund Dignity Foundation services. Thus, those who can pay for services will help to provide free services to those who cannot. The profits also will help to establish additional Dignity Foundation chapters across the country.

"Dignity" has gained popularity as a brand name that means commitment, sincerity, and honesty. As a result, the High Court ordered the State Pollution Control Board to hire dignitarians to assist government officials in checking vehicular pollution to guard the process from corruption. In addition, the Maharashtra state government has declared the Dignity Foundation–on behalf of the government–to be the nodal agency for designing, processing, and issuing identity cards to senior citizens. Senior citizens can use these cards to obtain travel discounts, bank loan discounts, and other benefits.

Dignitarians also leverage their brand to secure contracts and assignments from both private companies and government agencies. For example, "Cleaning Mumbai with Dignity" is one such contract. Since 1998, the Dignity Foundation has been working in collaboration with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai on a project to educate the public on cleanliness and garbage management. About 700 member dignitarians have been participating across Mumbai City. Each participant receives 800 rupees honorarium a month from the Municipal Corporation for his services.

Other achievements include convincing Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) to subscribe to and distribute Dignity Dialogue to its near-retirement workers. This readership was so impressed with Dignity Foundation's mission and services that many volunteered to start the Jamshedpur chapter. So far, all the chapters have been initiated by volunteers.

Sheilu's fundraising strategy includes a theater festival to which she invites a well-known theater group to act out issues and problems that senior citizens commonly face. This form of fundraising brings in money and spreads awareness on the benefits of productive aging. Sheilu is also educating and building a base of support among children. For instance, for World Elders Day, Sheilu and Dignity Foundation celebrated it as "Suraksha Bandhan" (Bond of Security) Day, during which school children brought "suraksha" bands from their grandparents and contributed their names and addresses to the country's first database of senior citizens.




THE PERSON

Sheilu's parents–both known for their dedication to social work–raised her in an environment of selfless service and giving to others. From an early age, Sheilu was committed to helping rural areas and orphanages as often as she could. As a champion in sports and academics, she was a leader among her peers in college. During her postgraduate psychiatric social work, she studied brain function by working with patients at a mental hospital. Afterwards, she became an undergraduate teacher of psychology and English. When she moved to Mumbai after marriage, she found it difficult–almost traumatic–to adjust to her husband's conservative orthodox family in which women were confined to the kitchen. After four years she rebelled, leaving her husband's home to enroll in a doctoral program at Mumbai University, and lived in a women's shelter on 400 rupees a month. During her studies, her husband joined her and together they set up their independent home.

In 1977, Sheilu joined the Macmillan India publishing house as corporate manager in charge of policy. In this capacity, she learned about the business of publishing. During her 10-year career with Macmillan, she felt handicapped by the excessive emphasis on money and commercial interest. So, in 1987, she joined Tata Institute of Social Sciences as the head of the publications department. The position enabled her to combine publishing with social work.

As she built her career in publishing, Sheilu nursed her mother-in-law through cancer. She also observed the differences between the way her father and father-in-law dealt with aging. While her own father remained active and enterprising, her father-in-law led an isolated life, inactive and depressed. Intrigued by this observation, she educated herself on gerontology and saw that old age could be promising and beautiful. Inspired by the AARP's services, she started Senior Citizens Life Enrichment Services with her own savings. With her experience in publishing, she started Dignity Dialogue magazine and within five months had 1,000 subscribers. Through letters written to the editor, she discovered a vast number of lonely senior citizens in Mumbai and launched the first Dignity service, Dignity Companionship, in 1995. Since then there has been no stopping her progress as she continues to strive–and succeed–in making the world a better place for senior citizens.