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Is mental healthcare on their minds?

Updated on: 15 April,2024 06:44 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Fiona Fernandez |

If state and national budgets are any indicator, one is concerned whether our newly elected policy makers will show a mindsets shift when it comes to creating a robust plan for mental healthcare, especially for senior citizens

Is mental healthcare on their minds?

Representational image. Pic/PickPik

Fiona FernandezMa’am, we’ll be shutting down the senior care home in a month’s time because a majority of our staff are refusing to return from their hometowns and villages on account of the pandemic. We request you to please make arrangements in a fortnight’s time to take your relative. We are sorry…” That minute-long phone call in early May of 2020, was the manifestation of my worst nightmare. Months into the lockdown, and the residential space where I had moved my father to [he was afflicted by Parkinson’s and related mental health issues] was forced to end operations. I had to hit the ground running in extremely hostile conditions to find another safe, dignified, cooperative and well-equipped senior care home. It almost felt as if I was asking for the Moon, and then some more, given the inexplicable scenarios that we were all trying to survive in at the time.

I returned to my Excel data sheet for options that I had meticulously created from over six months of research, when I had begun to explore the option of finding a senior care home to cater to my father’s needs, given his medical condition. To buy time, I immediately reached out to a reliable caregiver [bless her] from a previous stint at my home, who agreed to stay full-time given the strict movement restrictions during the first lockdown. Most other centres had also met with similar fate of being forced to close. The ones that were operational, refused to take in patients with mental health issues. It was a gloomy scenario in an already gloomy world. Then, a godsend emerged from nowhere and I could move my father into a reliable space in the neighbouring suburb.

Last week, barring a play that was staged at a city venue that highlighted the condition, there was little buzz around World Parkinson’s Day. Amidst the hectic pace that has gripped Mumbai and the rest of India, given the upcoming elections, I doubt the date or any thoughts around this family of connected mental health conditions, would have crossed minds, barring those who, like this columnist, would have experienced it, first-hand. Often, in my column have I reiterated my thoughts about the dire need to create such affordable, dignified and safe spaces within Mumbai that must be staffed with specialist caregivers. It’s a worrisome, much-ignored gaping chasm that needs immediate looking into. The truth is that India’s financial capital is woefully inadequate when it comes to this key area of medical health. Even if such care is available, it is unaffordable, and thus, available to a select, privileged few. 

I wonder and am curious to know if any political party has even bothered to address this vacuum in their manifestos. Alzheimer’s Disease, Dyslexia and Parkinson’s Disease belong to an umbrella of neurological conditions that require special care from doctors to caregivers, and cannot be clubbed with the rest. As I recall from those multiple recce trips—11 in total – until I zeroed in on the ‘right’ place [that eventually shuttered during the lockdown]—some were staggeringly expensive, catering only to the NRI variety, while others were ill-equipped with miniscule, or poorly-trained staff; some were dingy cubby holes— a far cry from their glossy websites, while then there those that were miles away from the nearest healthcare facility. When I had to resume my hunt, the possible spaces had halved.

With our ageing population increasing at a rapid pace, we cannot afford to neglect or give it step-sisterly attention. Friends, colleagues and acquaintances brush aside the seriousness of this issue because they live in joint families and fall back on the support of fellow members to care for a senior with a prolonged neurological condition. Some look the other way, and avoid even acknowledging the reality if a senior family member is showing signs of a mental degeneration. But we are digressing. The stigma of society towards these conditions will have to be addressed in another column altogether.

The stubborn elephant in the room is the utter lack of mental health care facilities and hospices within the city. When my father’s condition deteriorated even further [as is the case with neurological, degenerative conditions], the second senior care home was unable to take responsibility, and I had to move him to a hospice in the neighbouring district. It was a two-hour drive from my suburban home. For a city where its citizens have to make unforgiving daily commutes, it’s a tough call, right?

I doubt that our policy makers are clued in these glaring gaps in the medical healthcare ecosystem. It’s all very well to thump our chests by hailing our country as a fast-growing economy, or feel reassured when we spot full-page newspaper advertisements that boast of new state-of-the-art hospitals. But are we truly anywhere close to reality when it’s a struggle for middle-class folk to grapple with affordable and accessible healthcare options including a structured system for mental health related conditions? Your guess is as good as mine.

mid-day’s Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city’s sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana

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