Auroville is well ahead of most communities in its wide range of activities, spiritual, mental and physical which encourage well-being and personal growth.
But what happens when one can no longer ride a bike or drive a moped or scooter?
“I don't drive any more,” says Kamala Tewari, who at 81 still works three mornings each week as a homeopathic doctor. “The seniors' bus takes me to work in the mornings and then brings me back home afterwards. I order food from Pour Tous and thrice a week they deliver a basket. We take a taxi if we want to go out at night, or to Pondy.” Her husband, General Krishna Tewari, “85 years young”, works five mornings a week in the Auroville Archives and also uses the seniors' bus service to get there and back.
However, social isolation can be a problem. Erica lived here for many years but in her eighties began to feel increasingly isolated and lonely as she found it difficult to move around and was becoming dependant on visitors. After a couple of exploratory visits to Germany , she decided to move back to her roots and live near her son. “Auroville is not a particularly friendly place. Most people do not speak your native language or can share your history. Many are new here and involved in establishing themselves. There is little social life or visiting, or just dropping in for a cup of tea. It often lacks heart,” she says.
This issue seems to be more starkly evident when people have difficulty leaving their homes without assistance. There is a growing need in Auroville for more community-run transport, small vans or buses, not just to take seniors to work but also for social outings, shopping trips, medical visits, attending classes and courses and for getting around Auroville generally. Taxis are out of the price-range of many, although a flexible shared-taxi system could work at a lesser cost to users.
Continued participation in community life also requires that all those with decreased mobility can still access important buildings.
But Auroville's most significant building and its soul, the Matrimandir, is virtually inaccessible to those who cannot climb its steep ramps. Concentration in the inner chamber is closed to those less mobile or with heart conditions. Only the petal chambers remain available to them. For many, this is a sore loss.
Enabling older people to remain in their homes until they choose to leave them is another key element in their remaining independent. Providing help with chores that become too heavy, or helping with other activities of daily living such as shopping, cooking, showering and dressing may be all that is required. Many already pay ammas for these services. Others rely on family, friends and fellow Aurovilians. Some home care services have started and more are being planned.
For those who need more than this, be it physical or mental, the outlook is less promising. Medical services remain an area of some confusion. The Aspiration Health Centre offers access to doctors, but in-patient facilities which used to be provided have diminished, primarily because of funding problems and later due to lack of space. There is now only one room available for recovery or for use as a hospice, with 24-hour nursing and a doctor on call during consulting hours, mornings and afternoons. Charges are modest: currently Rs 750 a day. Although there are kitchen facilities, there is no cook and patients need to have special food provided from outside.
However, a new Health Service in Kailash has recently been set-up and promises a service dedicated to Aurovilians.
If medical facilities for physical health are scarce, those for mental health are virtually non-existent. An ageing population tends to have a specific range of mental health issues. How Auroville will provide services to patients, and backup and support, has not yet been addressed. So far, there has been limited success in coping with mental health problems, and sufferers have had to rely on the efforts of individuals.
Full-time care for the aged in a dedicated home is not yet available in Auroville. 92-year old Luisa who recently moved to Auroville and settled in the Vérité community says, “For the first time in my life, I am forced to learn to be more humble; and that's good for me. Moving about is the curse of the old, now that my legs have turned to rubber. I need a wheelchair and personal attention, without which I cannot move about anymore. I have a ground level house behind Vérité community, and have a wonderful live-in helper called Christiane. She has cared for elderly people before, and knows how to indulge and challenge me in just the right proportion. I also have a very affectionate relationship with Aurelio whom I met in Japan in 1998 and who lives in Vérité too. He says I inspire him as I am always talking about the future. He puts me on the back of his motorbike and whizzes me off to the Om choir on Tuesdays. Christiane rings for a taxi for me if I want to go to Pondicherry , though the bumpy roads play havoc with my bones.”
Home care does not have to ‘ghetto-ise' the old, a fear for many. Arka community, for example, focusses on the needs of the community's older members, while also offering services to younger people. Arka, meaning ‘ray of sunlight' in Sanskrit, was the name given by The Mother to Umberto Costanzia who opened the first Sri Aurobindo Centre in Milan in Italy . When he passed away, he left a bequest to meet a need not then addressed in Auroville, a service for the elderly. Arka was conceived in response to that need.
Two views of Arka: Main building (top) and the wheel-chair accessible courtyard (bottom)
Today it consists of an as yet uncompleted main building and residential facilities that include five units which are designed for elderly or convalescents. Of these, one unit is designed specifically for a wheelchair-bound individual. When not being used, these rooms are let as guest accommodation. Four new units are scheduled for completion by the end of this summer. These are slated to meet Auroville's general housing needs for the next five years, after which they will be turned over to the Arka project. The Arka team also has plans to start hiring small buses to bring seniors to Arka for the day and for excursions, and to employ trained care-givers to assist those who need help in their own homes.
Finance is another crucial issue. The average age of both Newcomers and Aurovilians is increasing, implying increased pressures in the future on age-related resources. There is as yet insufficient recognition of the indirect costs that an ageing population brings, especially one that demands western-style services with high levels of skill and comfort.
While the challenges thrown up by Auroville's ageing population are real, they are not insurmountable. The cohort moving into older age is large; it has been through many testing times and it knows how to wrest success from difficult conditions.
Photos: photos Giorgio