You can sense old age the minute you walk in. The loneliness, the wrinkles, the faint smell of decay are almost a physical sensation, a wave that engulfs you at St Vincent’s Home for the Aged. Tucked into one of the tiny, graffiti-ridden corners of Drigh Road, Karachi, the Christian home is a haven for the elderly who have nowhere else to go.
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Established by Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro in 1960, the facility has been home to countless seniors over the years. Supported by donations, the place provides an individual room along with three meals a day and required medical facilities to the residents who have to pay a fee of Rs600 every month.
As you step further into the facility, the air is fresh; the grass is lush green and the stories heart-breaking. Sorrow is well concealed with mirth and expressions of contentment, but if you spend enough time with the residents, a painful sigh or a silent tear might tell you otherwise.
While some of the inhabitants of the old home have chosen to live at the facility voluntarily once their children settled abroad, others did not have much of a choice.
“I lost my parents, I lost my three sisters. I had no alternative but to come here,” says 86-year-old Anthony Masquerain, the oldest resident at St Vincent’s. Masquerain, who has never been married, lives at the facility with his only surviving sister. Despite his frail form and hearing impairment, he insists on dressing like a gentleman and speaks fondly of “the old days”. He recalls his bribe-free career as a shipping company employee with extreme pride but complains about the minimal retirement packages offered back in the day.
Hilda Lobo, 86, has been at the facility for the past eight years and calls it home. After her only daughter passed away, she did not wish to move to Australia to live with her sons. “I don’t want to worry them at this age. Over there, I would be left all alone in the house from morning to evening,” she says.
The silent camaraderie between the residents is comforting, as they sit around a table for hours every afternoon without exchanging a word. Most of them are not related by blood, but by circumstances. While some of the residents receive a meager pension, most of them depend on their children for financial support. Some have sold their houses and possessions and saved the income to get them through their last days.
Sister Fazeelat Inayat, an administrator at the facility for the past six years has been involved in social work since a young age. Her warm expression and gentle voice are a stark contrast to her crisp white cotton sari. She stealthily moves from one resident to another inquiring about their day, their diet and their health. Despite being several years younger, the residents revere her like a maternal figure.
“Some of the residents are grateful that there is a place that will look after them in this age but there are others who show anger at being left behind by their children or families,” she said.
Dominque Lobo, another resident, likes to draw and paint when he feels lonely. His easel and paints occupy a significant corner of his room and a large painting hangs right above his bed. To a stranger, it might appear to be an amateur’s kaleidoscope of shapes and colours. For Lobo, it is a loving portrait of a friend he dearly misses.
Lobo does not like to leave his room often but when asked about leaving the home some day, he became silent. A few minutes later, he whispered “Yes, who doesn’t”, before staring in space again.
Donations for the facility have slowed down drastically since the 2005 earthquake, when people started directing their funds towards the earthquake victims. As a safety measure, the monthly charge for the new in-coming residents has been increased to Rs2,000 now. Inayat admits that it was not the ideal move but necessary to keep the place running.
“I often fear that we might have to close down due to the increasing expenses. But then what will happen to these residents, where will they go. The thought makes me shudder.”
St Vincent’s Home for the Aged can be reached at:
Drigh Road 26/152 Cantt Bazaar Karachi 8
Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2013.