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     Volume 8 Issue 74 | June 19, 2009 |

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'A Complete Life Plan'

Nusrat Jahan Pritom

Most of us would like to believe that we will make it through at least the next decade. If you are a student, you would probably want to see what happens to you in the future and if you are a guardian you would want to know what will happen to your children as they grow up. At the same time we must face the reality of aging, more importantly, how will we pass our old age. We stumble into this period completely unprepared and vulnerable.

In a culture like ours that encourages extended families, the assumption being that when we get old our children will take care of us, very few of us think about what if there is no one to take care of us, what if we are all alone. Society is changing and the pace of modern life has disintegrated the practicality of joint families. Sometimes children just do not have the resources or time to take care of parents as they are too hassled by their own lives. Sometimes, unfortunately, it is pure apathy or selfishness that make children abandon their own parents.

Relaxing at the home in Savar.

This is where Salina Akther comes in, a woman who has recognised the harsh realities of aging and is determined to make this time of one's life, dignified and meaningful. Akther, has already set up two homes for distressed people whether they are men, women, children, elderly, invalid or just helpless individuals with nowhere to go. Now she has a much larger vision, to set up a whole village for the elderly where wealthy senior citizens will get the benefit of living a very comfortable life at a price, while their poorer counterparts will benefit because they will be the ones running the village and making sure it functions smoothly. It is an ambitious prospect but Salina is an individual whose compassion and sheer determination has made many unusual things happen.

After marriage, Salina decided to start a small poultry farm as a way to create her own identity. She started it at her own house. However, the 1988 flood washed away her initiative and her dream. All her efforts went in vain. In 1985 her father died and the responsibility of her family fell upon her shoulders.

Although her first two ventures were not successful, she finally could start Aakor, a business house that produces handicrafts and this she did besides looking after her new born son, her family and her studies.

“I had a lot of odds to fight against being a woman in the competitive area of business which is usually considered a man's field of proficiency,” says Salina.

Aakor won her the first The Daily Star--DHL Business Award in 2000 and you may think that from here she lived happily ever after. But this is where the story actually begins.

Salina Akther

“We live in social clusters and we tend to believe that we will never have to be alone and that someone would always be there for us" says Salina. "But how tragic and malignant this opinion is can only be witnessed from the lives of those around us. All the helpful numbers stay in our phone index and we keep accounts in our banks to prepare us for any emergency, but what about old age? We know it's coming and when the fragility of this time will break in upon us, neither will the bank account be of any use nor might we even be able to muster up the strength to reach the phone and call for help. Even our assets may come to no use. There are old, fragile people who die uncared for and out of neglect. They rot in their houses and their neighbours only get to know that they are dead when the smell of decay spreads. That is how frightening this stage of life can be if we do not prepare ourselves from now.”

Her initiative to create a place where the elderly can be self-reliant and active came after years of patience, work and research.

She began her new expedition by leaving her own luxurious residence located in the heart of Dhaka city and it traded for a simple rented home deep in the greenery of Savar. There, in 2006, started her epoch making journey to establish a genre of Old Age Homes in Bangladesh.

Teatime at Anurima among the greenery.

When the Arunima home started functioning, it was established mainly for women as in our patriarchal society it is mainly women who become victims of social, domestic, mental and physical abuse. Salina Akhter wanted to offer such women a place where they would get security, mental peace and rest-all of these at a very reasonable price. For this, she started networking with different legal and human rights organisations so that if ever a woman came for refuge, she would not have to be turned away. At the time, it occurred to S.Akhter that these women would not be able to work forever. Once they reach their age of retirement, they will not be able to derive income from anywhere. They will have practically nowhere to go if nobody comes to their support at that time and moreover they will become physically and mentally weak. She began to think more and more of this pitiful condition of old age. She began her research and found out to her dismay that currently there was hardly any place to turn to that will give the dignity for a person who has lost time, money and strength.

“I wanted to bring about a social change so I diverted my priorities from business to social work. If I had opted for business, it would have been a personal gain, but it would have benefited nobody else. Although I did not have the money to take such a bold move, however often money is not the sole factor. Sometimes many people who have the finance cannot put it into good use because they lack the initiative.”

Finally after many sleepless nights and the years of struggle, she came up with a complete life plan. This she has given the name of Swapnolok. “The time has come for a revolution of thoughts. We become weaker the older we grow, so it is from our youth that we plan for our old age.”

Salina knew that an ideal old age home should be in a calm, pollution free environment, consisting of independent rooms or cottages, and it should involve many activities so that the inhabitants can spend their time purposefully. Moreover it should have attendance in some cases even for 24 hours.

By 2008, many people wanted to come to Arunima especially its Savar centre for its serene surroundings. This home was different from all the others because it was meant for the people who could buy and enjoy the services enlisted for them.

But slowly a new trend started to get incorporated in the system. People wanted better and more advanced facilities such as their own garage, therapy, gym, etc, but in the constrained premises of three rented buildings, such an expansion was not possible. Moreover, the mindset of people that old age homes are a shame came as a block between personal welfare and dignity. So in some cases there were disagreements between the sons/daughters who did not want to put their aging parent in an old age home even if it was by payment but the old person wanted to reside there because s/he was not taken care of properly in their house. They demurr from taking such a step because they fear what the society would think of them, or in some cases the old person is forced to live here with much regret because they were abandoned at home.

Although it has become ingrained in the cultures of developed countries to put the elderly person in an old age home, in our country we are still held back by traditional beliefs.

“As it is a new concept, it needs to be recognised so that a new culture can be raised that would ensure the safety of our today, tomorrow and of our next generation”, says Salina.

The proposed Peace Valley promises to provide a comfortable, respectable abode for the elderly to spend their old age.

“Women empowerment is also dependent on this structure because in a traditional pattern, women are expected to care for the elderly but as she is emancipating herself from the confinements, she too is left with little time to spare in nursing. Often the blame comes to the woman if the elder person is not looked after as there are no other alternatives in our society even today”

The idea is that each of the 100 cottages would be rented to an old person, sold, left for the next generation or donated to the distressed 'Su-barta' portion and the owner can become a Trustee. There will be another valley right next to Swapnolok for the people who would be giving services to the Swapnolok residents and this valley would be known as Su-barta. For Su-barta, donor support is needed. The price of the cottages is estimated to be approximately Tk12 lakh. "This is a very low price for such a productive asset,” says Salina. She also stresses that in time the old age village cottages can become a market product and would become essential just like schools and hospitals in a modern city. She says that the more modernised our societies become, the less time we have at our disposal to take proper care of our elders. So it would become a requirement to put them in a community which would take care of them, respect them and allow them to spend their time purposefully. Even old people have a lot of potential and most importantly they have experience (they can establish business, create and enjoy recreational facilities and be a valuable citizen through a platform where they can contribute their knowledge and ideas, with their health fully taken care of). They will not be just counting the hours to death.

The concept of Peace Valley composed of 100 one storied and two-storied Personal Peace Cottages is the first of its kind in Bangladesh. “It is also recognised to be genuine and original in the world,”commented Dr. Samina Uddin Professor of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at the University of Alabama and a researcher in this field during a visit to Bangladesh two months earlier. She stressed on the need for emphasising problems associated with geriatrics in Bangladesh and expressed her desire in initiating respectable and dignified OAH (Old Age Homes) and refining the syllabus and implementation of Geriatrics in the Curriculum. At present she is supporting Arunima with information on Gerontology to enhance its performance

The village would be 70% for the senior citizens and 30% for researchers, foreigners and distressed people.

At Arunima, residents live in a clean, pleasant and safe environment.

“It is just a plan now,” says Salina, "however, if it is executed the helplessness of old age will be wiped out, the obligations of the young people to look after their parents will be covered, a new job location will be created for middle class distressed women, the prime constraints holding back a woman will be uprooted and a safer life can be achieved for oneself, one's parents and the next generation. Those who take the responsibility of raising the Personal Old Age Home today will be the founders of a new culture”

Salina explains how the concept of the village could work. Apart from a community initiative, this can be introduced as a Corporate Social Responsibility project. In the future, companies can sponsor, say, 10 cottages in the village. As a part of social reform, 10 elderly committed and deserving people can get the privilege of living in Swapnolok at a reduced cost. That cost can be used to generate money so that there can be another batch of 10 old people who will be benefited for their contribution through CSR in another village. Sons/ daughters can also buy a cottage which has services to ensure that, if they are away or out of Bangladesh, can get their parents will be taken care of. They can regularly visit them when they have time and look after them but the presence of their aged parents will not hamper their jobs or business.

“We plan only till our middle age, but a person's old age can stretch for 30 years from 60 to 90. Yet no arrangements are made for this part of life.” Salina further says, “We buy our graves long before our final hours, so shouldn't we be able to buy a resting spot also for our old age?”

Because of a severe medical condition, Salina Akhter is advised not to take too much stress. Her health suffers and so does her business venture. Yet she is relentless in her pursuit of making other people's lives better

But the question is out of so many millions will 100 risk takers come forward to raise the first model of Swapnolok and set into reality so that others can follow the 'complete life plan'? Salina is waiting.

For more information on Peace Valley contact 01819 272 568 or visit www.arunimahome.org

Coming Back

Sufia was confined in her bed for 27 years. She slept 22 hours and woke up only to be fed. Salina Akther could not accept her morbid lifestyle-she believed that if she was motivated continuously and given proper care Sufia could also be brought out from this incarcerated existence. She first moved her to Savar, where there is plenty of oxygen and she started her own sort of treatment of motivation. Sufia started to try to move a little, and after months of perseverance, she now can talk (before she couldn't), walk with a helper and do many things independently.

Everyone knows about the story of Geeta and Gayetri which was publicised in November 2008. They are two elderly spinsters in their 70s who were found emaciated from a temple, where they had been staying for 13 days. They were blind, one of them could neither speak nor hear and the other was mentally unstable. Their own relatives took away their property and the landlord sent them out of the house because they could not pay the rent, they were just left, lying in the streets until a boy who remembered them from his childhood picked them up and put them in the temple until they were brought to Arunima. The committee did not agree in keeping them because they had huge expenditures and no one to pay. But Salina kept them - paying for their expenses, treated their eyes with the help of a doctor, and now even the one who was mentally sick has a sound mind.

Shondip Hussain (pseudonym) was a flight sergeant, now in his old age with no inheritors. His relatives do not want to put him into a home as it costs too much (despite his huge earnings he is left with). When Salina went to visit, he found this fragile, retired gentleman in a broken tin shed home that had a poignant smell of mess. His food had flies and insects over it. Everybody is just waiting for him to die.


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