February 21, 2010

INDIA: A slew of services thanks to nascent homecare industry

. MUMBAI, Maharashtra / The Sunday Times / City - Mumbai / February 21, 2010 To GRANDMA with LOVE Seniors can now get a slew of services from medicare to entertainment, thanks to the nascent homecare industry By Joeanna Rebello Fernandes | Times News Network Not for nothing has old age been called the outpatients department of purgatory. In cities guilty of crimes against the elderly, deficient welfare schemes and a lackadaisical attitude to this demographic, old age is hell itself. Over the last few years, however, people on both sides of 60 have jumpstarted a slew of services that make life’s fourth phase a bit easier. An under-marketed analgesic is the homecare industry, where service providers show up at the door to fix anything from a broken bulb to a bruise. Sometimes the need of the hour is simply company, and that solitary end too is met by these institutions. Their raison d’etre is typically summarised in taglines that read, ‘Taking care of your beloved elders’ or ‘Your concern is our responsibility’. Outsourcing parent care may have its ethical arguments, but for practical purposes, it turns out such intermediaries are just what the NRI ordered. SILVER LINING Roopesh Kumar, who ushered his company Eldess into Mumbai late last year, is an NRI himself who knew firsthand about the guilt and anxiety that torment children living outside the orbit of aging parents. When he drew up the template for his company, he consulted friends like himself. “We knew that relatives couldn’t always be expected to rush to our parents when they needed help,” he says in a phone interview from London. Their yearning for “a service they could call”— long popular in the West — had Kumar building just the thing. “In India, the options available for elderly assistance are either charity or dollar-driven. There’s nothing affordable for the middle classes,” he says, adding that his company is “that friendly relative” who will do everything from running errands to accompanying seniors to the doctor and even playing escort to a film or play. Eldess has already affiliated with A-grade healthcare providers, and is in the process of tying up with a range of servicemen, from plumbers to handymen. “And because we offer bulk business, our clients will actually pay less,” he says. Outside actuals — the handyman’s charges or the price of a movie ticket — the client pays for the service of the company rep. Standard packages with a preprogrammed line-up of services can cost about Rs 2,000 a month. If a client needs an arid tap repaired, the rep will source a legitimate plumber in the neighbourhood, supervise his work, and leave only after the problem is solved. At Eldess the reps, young graduates for now, are vetted by the company; their credentials verified by a security firm and their data registered with the police. Later, Kumar hopes to hire retired senior citizens themselves. While Eldess currently only operates in Mumbai, a company called NRI Parental Care India has been working to bring the joy back to Kolkata. The company estimates there are at least 5,000 seniors in Kolkata who need and can afford this service. However, although established in 2008, they have only 12 committed clients to date. “I’m not entirely sure why this is so,” muses Animesh Chowdhury, the US-residing CEO. “It could be partly due to our meagre advertising budget. Part of it has to do with the general scepticism seniors have towards any company that promises to help them. Part of it is that many seniors are in denial that they need help. There’s also the fact that the cost of living is lower in Kolkata than other metros, and when people see that they are paying a few hundred rupees for a day’s work, they think it’s too much.” Surveys reveal that security, finances and healthcare are the three apical concerns of the aging. Doorstep Doctor, a Noida-based service provider has made the third concern its business. Its preventive and proactive healthcare plans span the whole body of benefits from home visits by a physician, emergency assistance, maintenance of medical records, telephonic medical advice and free ambulance services. In addition to these are routine investigations familiar to that age group, like screening for arthritis and gout, liver disorders, diabetes, prostate cancer and such other body blows. Doorstep Doctor has a network that covers the country, with affiliates like Fortis, Max Healthcare Apollo, Jaslok, Wockhardt and others. While gerontology throws up bright business opportunities for some, others view it less lasciviously. Dignity Foundation’s Companion Services for Senior Citizens has been dispatching volunteers to the homes of those over 50 since 1997. “A distress call is answered within 24 hours,” says Neha Shah, GM of Dignity’s Social Support Services. “Loneliness is a common complaint; people just want someone to talk to.” And that’s what they get. Dignity has about 100 volunteers on its roster (mostly seniors themselves), who are happy to do pretty much everything for free that private companies charge for. “A Gujarati writer whose vision was failing wanted someone to read her old works aloud to her and even take dictation. One of our volunteers visited her very week, and engaged her in stimulating discussions until the end,” recalls Shah. “Another visually impaired woman wanted someone to sing bhajans with her. We satisfied that request too; an 88-yearold man wanted help transferring all his physical photographs to the computer. We sent two volunteers over.” With doorstep deliverance, old age or retirement homes may soon be considered last choice, not sole option. Ravi Chawla, 73, who runs and writes for the blog Seniors World Chronicle, has this to say about this emergent trend. “The upside is the convenience to senior citizens, and also the tremendous scope it offers to professional voluntarism. People trained at places like TISS can develop a career out of it. And here’s the downside: the advent of such add-on services for seniors means more people will make money out of the elderly. Service providers will make old folk give more than they should for what’s offered. And they’ll do it through emotional atyachar.” For a little more than a song. [rc] Copyright © 2010 Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd.