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A mother’s words inspired one of Mumbai’s largest elder-care movements. Nine years on, the son, Sailesh Mishra, is powering on to fulfil his calling, writes Sahil Jaswal

 
Sailesh Mishra is not your average social crusader. There is no pain of missed opportunities, no regrets he is trying to make up for, no past atrocities he is attempting to recover from. Yet this 53 year-old is driven. Can compassion alone have motivated Mishra to become a noted gerontologist?

“I believe it was my mother who set me on this track. I will never forget her words, ‘Forget yourself for others and others will never forget you’,” says Mishra, who founded the Mumbai-based Silver Innings nine years ago.

Through his foundation, Mishra has been working to change the perception of ‘silver years’, from a time of ‘retirement’ to a stage when elders can pick up where they left off before the responsibilities and baggage of adulthood begin to kick in. Instead of looking at retirement as a time of winding down and vicariously reliving one’s youth through the eyes of one’s grandchildren, Mishra says it is a time to put the ‘live’ back into ‘living’.

“We, especially the middle class, are conditioned to think that there is no life beyond 60 and I used to be one of these people,” he shares. “But I have seen dreams and hope in the eyes of seniors and that tells me they are alive, and not just living. I once helped a senior citizen to procure his identity card within 60 days, when the mandated time to process the documents was 90 days. With tears in his eyes, he handed me a candy from his pocket and hugged me firmly. In that instant, the force of all his emotions hit me. Not only was it a touching moment for me, it was an eye-opener to all the emotions and love that seniors harbour.”

Mishra’s journey with silvers began after he gave up a career in sales and marketing, a career choice he stuck with for 17 years. Born and raised in Mumbai, he acquired a bachelor’s degree in economics and worked in various marketing jobs, selling paints among other products. During this time, he evolved from an introverted sales trainee selling door to door to a social and uninhibited marketing manager. Mishra says it taught him not to baulk at problems but always look for solutions.

“Unaware of my destiny intertwined with the lives of seniors, I was busy providing for my family and earning a livelihood,” he recalls. “My wife Mona helped out financially by tutoring children at home and taking care of our daughter Drishti.” Then, in 2004, Mishra watched a television show on silvers on a Marathi channel and suddenly his mother’s words rang true. He took it as a sign and approached Dignity Foundation and FESCOM (Federation of Senior Citizens’ Organisation of Maharashtras), Mumbai’s biggest non-profits working with silvers. He told them he wanted to sign up as a volunteer. But Mishra found himself at an impasse, when negotiating the unfavourable volunteering hours suddenly turned to a full-time job opportunity. The hitch was the massive pay cut he would have to take if he wanted to work with Dignity Foundation fulltime “I discussed it with my wife, who had just one thing to say, ‘If you think you can keep me happy, I know I will be happy’.”

For the next three years, Mishra immersed himself in the world of silvers as he worked in various capacities with the NGO. He grew more and more sensitive to their needs and realised that some of their biggest challenges grew out of the ignorance of youth towards them; being abandoned by their families; and ignored by the government. “With all their wisdom and experience, they are the most integral part of society and sadly also the most neglected,” he says.

It was the time he spent first erecting and then managing a township for senior citizens, run by Dignity, that really hit a raw nerve as he saw, close up, what it meant to be forgotten by society, sometimes even discarded by family. It was also his initiation to the world of dementia, with some of the residents dealing with advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.

“I started thinking of them as patients, but then I realised that they were first humans,” he says, fondly mentioning Laxmi, who would make him sing the same song every night before she went to sleep. He also remembers Prema, who would wake up every morning and put on a fresh coat of nail polish, do her hair up nicely and carry herself with poise and elegance. “She was a frequent visitor of the salon run by the NGO in the township.” Mishra makes a poignant observation, “Sometimes, vanity isn’t skin deep; it can be one’s identity.”

Mishra’s work with seniors and Alzhiemer’s patients forced him to confront a painful truth. “Those were difficult times when it came to gathering information. There was no handbook on how to manage silver citizens suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia, or any other ailments.” In those days, Mishra was still experimenting with digital space on the Internet and had launched a blog called peopleforsocialcause.blogspot.in. In his quest for more information on elder care, he decided to add blog posts on the subject.

Over time, the blog evolved into a platform where individuals, experts, groups and organisations linked to elder care began collaborating with each other online. This prompted Mishra to launch a web portal in 2008, called ‘Silver Innings’. He was amazed at the power of the Internet and how people and organisations, either offering help or seeking it, connected with each other and collaborated from across the globe.

Professor S Siva Raju, Deputy Director of TISS, Hyderabad, whom Mishra met at the International Conference on Ageing, Tirupati, in December 2008, is a strong advocate of integrating resources to enhance the quality of life of seniors. He recalls how Silver Innings has brought the elderly into public consciousness. “We were in desperate need for a platform like this, and considering how often I hear his name, I would say that the momentum Mishra’s work has gathered is overwhelming. It has opened many doors for communication, sharing experiences and keeping up to date with the latest works regarding seniors.”

The portal soon became a one-stop shop for everything senior-related and the response was tremendous as queries and requests for need-based services started pouring in. Within three months, Mishra was impelled to launch the Silver Innings Foundation with bigger goals: to create programmes that would help integrate seniors into mainstream society and, in the long run, help craft an elder-friendly society where ageing would be viewed as a positive and rewarding experience.

That’s how Umang, a talent show for seniors, came about in 2008. Held annually in Mumbai on World Elders’ Day on 1 October, it recently shifted to the month of February for higher participation. The event, which aims to draw seniors into the mainstream, currently hosts about 125 participants aged between 50 and 79, and plays to a 1,000-strong audience.

Sneh Kala Kendra is an NGO for seniors that has been participating in Umang for the past six years. Sneha Mehta Shah, founder of the NGO, says this year, her seniors have already started preparing a dance based on a book written by Mishra, titled Remember Me: You Me And Dementia (Krimiga Books, 2017). “Saileshji has worked with senior citizens for over a decade and events like Umang enable elders to showcase their talents to the world,” she says. “He had invited us for his book launch, where the seniors of Sneh Kala Kendra had performed a dance, shedding light on environmental issues. So, to show our appreciation, we decided to prepare a dance based on his book for this year’s Umang.”

Going beyond Mumbai, Mishra’s reach has been extensive. As an influencer in designing senior-friendly policies, he was invited as a member of the committee finalising the Central Government’s first National Dementia Strategy, organised by the Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India, in 2009. In 2010, he filed an application under the Right to Information Act, challenging the appointment of a four-member review committee of National Policy on Older Persons for a population of 90 million senior citizens, while neglecting the important organisations and NGO consultation for the appointment of the committee. As a result, five sub-committees were set up, each catering to a different aspect of senior life. Mishra’s work in the field of ageing also led him to the United Nations in 2012, where he participated in the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing, representing India on elder rights.

Anjali Raje, executive director of the International Longevity Centre India, Pune, has worked with Mishra for a long time. In her view, one has to be humane and completely committed to the cause of seniors to become such a major influencer. “He goes out of his way to help everyone who is working towards improving the lives of seniors,” she says. “His can-do attitude and passion to serve the senior community is infectious and has pushed a lot of us to serve better.”

In fact, while he kept an eye on policies focusing on this vulnerable section of society, Mishra’s Silver Innings Foundation launched a sporting initiative to sensitise young people towards the elderly. Under UNICEF’S Sport for Development (S4D) concept, he sponsored Al Fresco FC in 2011 and 2012 as part of his awareness campaign ‘Foot D Ball to Stop Elder Abuse’. And in 2013, he started his own Silver Innings Football Club. In addition, he hosts matches encouraging the youth to play against silvers.

In August 2013, Mishra took another step in elder care by setting up an assisted living home called A1 Snehanjali in Nalasopara (West), with a capacity of 10 people, on the outskirts of Mumbai; and a second one, in Rajodi, near Nalasopara, in June 2016. Sharing her experiences with seniors suffering from dementia, Jenet Pereira, manager of A1 Snehanjali, says, “As challenging as it is, it has sweet moments. As dementia is a progressive disorder, there is no hope of getting better but there are these moments of lucidity where they ‘remember me’. I learnt from Saileshji that happiness lies in little things and to spread that joy to others.”

Indeed, Mishra’s life, eventful as it has been, has been one of epiphanies and emotional revelations. And every one of them, whether building a cadre of individuals in geriatric care or drawing young people into campaigns for elder care, is aimed at improving the quality of life of elders. His limitless passion and boundless energy have earned him the moniker ‘son to a million parents’. As for Harmony-Celebrate Age, we are proud to call him a friend.

Photo: Amritraj Esakkiappan
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
February 2018