Compassion in the mountains

This blog recounts the author’s journey to an old age home deep within the Spiti Valley in North India. It describes his experience learning of the challenges facing elderly people who are often abandoned by their families, stripped of social support and left emotionally vulnerable as a result. His story narrates the good will of two young women who struggle against all odds to provide a home, hope and happiness to the elderly forgotten by their families. 

“A prayer wheel has thousands of mantras scribed on a thin long piece of paper rolled up and kept inside this rotating cylinder”, explained the elderly woman to me. “Holding the wheel in hand and rotating it is the equivalent of chanting those mantras.” During winters, many people living in the cold, frozen and predominantly Buddhist high altitude Himalayan valleys of Spiti and Ladakh in northern India emigrate to warmer and lower altitudes. Once such place is Rewalsar - a small, quiet, ancient hill town centred around a lake considered holy by three religions. I am on my way back to Dharamsala after spending a cold winter in Spiti, and the reason for my brief halt is an old age home project founded, managed and run by two fearless, inspiring women - Soni and Karma. They took this initiative to address the physical and mental health needs of elderly folk who have been abandoned by their families in the area.

Nestled at the confluence of two roaring mountain streams deep inside Spiti valley lies the village Sagnam. It is an ancient place - its inhabitants have nurtured the land over centuries to make it liveable against the backdrop of an otherwise deserted landscape. Growing up in this village, Soni and Karma were part of tightly knit communities, which above all, value the importance of working together as an essential tool of survival and prosperity. Yet, as portrayed brilliantly in Ladakh’s case in the book and documentary "Ancient Futures", roads and modernity in Spiti brought with it material progress at the expense of a gradual devaluation of emotional ties, both within families, and the larger community.

Soni then describes her transition - “I felt I wasn’t contributing meaningfully to society, and just leading a simple, comfortable life, until I became aware of the plight of the elderly in my village”. She enlightens me on a social ill prevalent across Spitian communities, where on a frequent basis the elderly are left by their children and relatives to fend for themselves – economically/financially and emotionally. To her, it is especially distressing to see this happen in a land so steeped in Buddhist culture. Apparently, the people who leave their elders in this way hide under the garb of tradition as they do this. They would say ‘because it is loo-lham’, which roughly translates to ‘because this is in our tradition or culture (to leave the elderly by themselves in the last stages of their lives)’ implying that it is right. As Soni is describing this to me, she stresses that nowhere in Buddhism does tradition dictate anything like this. She recounts the story of one maeme - elderly man who was left alone by his family and received refuge in the old age home for three years until he passed away last year. She recalls more instances where she would find elderly abandoned people in a sorrowful state of mind as they wouldn’t have anybody to converse with. Even when they would receive care, it would be perfunctory and not done in a loving or caring way.

It has not been plain sailing to get to this point. Soni and Karma have had to spend many months each year for the last four years going from village to village, home to home, asking for donations to fund this. They were also some promised government funds, which are now stuck in red tape and uncertainty. They have had to beg people from Sagnam to support them with the construction of a summer old age home in the village, but few turned up. Then they are nagged by family and village about securing their own futures and "settling" rather than doing this. Yet, despite all these challenges, what eats at them the most as well as keeps them going is the emotional distress of this social ill - that some elderly people in their valley have to contend with hardships borne out of the actions of the very people they helped nurture and grow. It is the ultimate form of objectification in this increasingly material world - where emotions and relationships are not real enough unless they are captured as a selfie, or shared as a text message, or replayed with slow-motion effects on television - all of which are making conspicuous inroads into Spitian culture.

"We are just waiting for death to come" - is what Soni told me the elderly would say before in anguish and isolation. To be happy in life, all one really needs is social support- love and a promise of being there. To have the comfort of knowing that somebody will always have your back, no matter what; that you don't need to worry about figuring out your next hour, day, month. With that, a beautiful transition happens - you become free, you live in the present, you become more alive. That is what the inhabitants of this home are - alive and happy. A deep happiness borne out of the simplicity and truth of just 'being'. This place has taken people who were otherwise waiting for death to come, and infused them with love, life, energy and happiness. I am hard pressed to recall of other places where such transitions happen.

Older adults
Human rights
Empowerment and service user involvement
Depression/anxiety/stress-related disorders
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