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Vol. XXXIII No. 16, December 1-15, 2023

Train travails of Senior Citizens

-- by Sabita Radhakrishna

As a child, I loved traveling by train. Which child does not?  Window seat? Of course. We were delighted by the ribbons of sunlight that streamed through, and charmed by the vista of a blue sky with fleecy, white clouds that seemed to follow us as we chugged along. We saw emerald green paddy fields with dhoti-clad, turbaned workers tending to them; took in the whiff of cattle that wafted in; marvelled at the sight of water bodies sparkling in the sun; and wondered at houses seemingly scattered at random across the landscape, some painted in gaudy blue, some in green and yet others in orange in what seemed to be a rather spirited competition of colours. All of this coupled with the lush greenery satiated my thirst for the unusual, city-bred girl that I was.

Train travel was the top choice, then. The Madras Mail – always in demand – was a challenge though; I was terrified of heights, and clambering on top was a definite no-no for me. I cannot forget the four berth first-class compartments! We even had a bathroom all to ourselves. We let down our hair and fully enjoyed the privacy. Our doggies travelled along with us and we played cards, and chatted away to our heart’s content, all the while stuffing ourselves with the food that our mother packed for the whole family.

We took to travelling by the then new Brindavan Express to Bangalore, our sister city. The train left early in the morning and reached the destination by lunchtime. It was a pleasure to get out at Bangalore Cantonment Station – which was hardly crowded – and run into the waiting arms of those who came to receive us. In the wake of the Brindavan Express came several other trains, including a double-decker.

Soon, the choice of trains expanded. The Shatabdi Express – which we loved travelling in – got one a comfortable, well-padded reclining seat, a hot breakfast, and the morning newspaper to boot. We learned to wait near the door as our station was approaching and mastered the art of throwing the luggage on the platform as the train screeched to a halt. We had to literally jump down to alight as the train stopped for only 5 minutes at the Cantonment Station. Oh, the impetuousness of youth!

Strange how the onset of twilight years changes one’s perception of life.  Disability and reduced mobility force us to opt for other modes of travel, or not at all. Today, train journeys are a totally different scenario from the days of my youth. The swanky Vande Bharat beckons with its sleek finish and high speed, and a trip from Chennai to Bangalore takes only 4 hours. The crowd at Madras Central is off-putting, though; and the station demands arduously long walks before one can find one’s compartment. I am told that buggies are available, as are wheelchairs so that the long trek is eliminated for the elderly and the disabled. But the biggest challenge of all surfaces after one reaches one’s compartment. The train stands way above the platform, and small projections act as steps. We watch as youngsters overtake us and clamber up the “steps” with practiced ease. Too late to withdraw, we hoist ourselves up clutching onto the metal handles embedded in the doorway. We use aids such as stools brought from home and sometimes get the benefit of helping hands as well. Even as we pull ourselves up, we’re already worrying about the tedium of getting down at the destination. These days, I give adventures a wide berth. I make no attempt to get out at unscheduled stations and go exploring. When the time to exit finally does come, I am almost always determined to alight gracefully until I see the challenge that awaits me. Shelf-life structures stand parallel to each other, looking nothing like steps; to get down onto the platform, one needs to shove their heels into a shelf-life space and hope to heaven that some kindly soul will offer their hand or at least soften a fall if it comes. One young thing – a bit obese, to put it kindly – told me that she jumped down and ended up breaking a leg despite being well-padded. The Indian brain is to be marveled at. In our very own backyard, the smart brains at IIT design amazingly innovative tools. Recently, the newspaper carried an article about a young man not yet out of his teens designing a battery-operated spoon for his uncle affected by Parkinson disease. Would it be so difficult, then, to design steps that will automatically jut out at a lower level when the train stops? Such a solution is no luxury but a necessity. And what about the loo? The train travels at such high speeds that it is nigh impossible to focus on the job. The trip back to one’s seat is worse. If you are elderly and cannot put off nature’s call for 5 hours, it is advisable to wear diapers. Hail Vande Bharat!

By 2050, the elderly are projected to constitute 20 per cent of the population. We live longer but the quality of accessible living leaves much to be desired. Metroes disregard the needs of the elderly and disabled. Take bathrooms in public spaces, for instance. Train or not, it is an excruciating experience. The commodes are low, and there is nothing in sight for one to hold onto while sitting down or getting up. Fortunately, elderly men are spared this torture. Should it not be mandatory for every theatre or public hall to have at least one bathroom for disabled people? As for the shower in the bathroom, it is a virtual death trap if you are not careful. You are expected to stand and take a shower with nothing to hold on to while the towels are a mile away on a rack out of reach. What happens to people who cannot stand for long and who are wobbly on their feet? ­Seniors and the disabled have as much a right to enjoy life as the younger people. Traveling is daunting as you will never know what discomforts you will encounter. Staying in posh hotels or clubs is not the answer if they cannot provide the basic comforts to senior citizens. Hotels should have senior-friendly rooms for the enterprising older people who enjoy travelling. It would be wise to ensure that all comforts are provided rather than be caught by surprise when it is too late to withdraw.

We proudly claim yesterday’s 80s to be today’s 60s. That is true of the mind, but alas! The mind does not keep in step with the deteriorating physical body. Today’s elders do not wish to be confined at home watching the idiot box and reading the newspaper. They want to be alive, conscious of what is happening around them, and engage in cultural connects, be it a play, a movie, or a classical performance during the kutcheri season.  Rightly so.

I have been impressed by Western concepts each time we travelled overseas. I have watched wheelchair-bound elders move on their own using motorized wheelchairs; always, a ramp is lowered to enable them to alight from the train or bus. A conductor also helps them dock in spaces specially provided for them.

By way of information, the population of those above 60 has been increasing steadily in India since 1961 and the number touched 13.8 crore in 2021. A study by the National Statistical Office (NSO) declares that it is due to the decrease in death rate. Even commercially speaking, the market for senior facilities is expanding as the need grows. The children, especially NRIs, want to see their parents comfortably settled and living their lives to the fullest, even if they are not with them. Call it a guilt trip but they are ready to spend, at least some of them. Senior-friendly design should be part of the planning process, whether one is a builder or the owner of a public space. And if you are a young Turk, do remember that old age will definitely catch up with you one day.

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  1. Raj Krishnan says:

    Well written article. If the writer wishes he is welcome to a latest set of apartments mainly constructed for senior citizens and aptly christened as ” Retiree’s Apartment in Coimbatore, Tamilnadu. All care for the well- being of the elderly are taken care of as mentioned by the author like providing ‘ holds’ in the toilet and baths, also the corridors of these apartments do have the ‘ holds’ on either sides so that one can safely take a walk without the fear of falling down. Further the floors in the entire flat is built with ‘non slip’ tiles. So, people have realized to take care of elderly in the same way one wishes. For outdoor movement these building complexes have a ‘buggy’ which one can use should he is immobile

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