When Shashi Luthra left Kolkata early this year, she had planned a 40-day vacation to visit her sister and granddaughter in India's capital city of New Delhi. Nothing could have prepared her for the next five months under lockdown in India, the country with the third-largest coronavirus caseload in the world.
Shashi, 80, flew to Delhi on February 14, when India had three confirmed cases of the virus. She was going to spend time with her granddaughter, who lives in New Delhi's Chittaranjan Park area, and her elder sister, who lived alone in the neighboring city of Faridabad. She still can't go home.
India had less than 400 confirmed cases when a nationwide 14-hour public curfew was implemented on March 22. The total number of infections was under 500 when the country went into lockdown. All flights and trains were canceled.
Three months have passed. Domestic flights have resumed. But India's coronavirus caseload has now crossed 700,000.
Coronavirus and the elderly
Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic early this year, governments and international organizations have been unequivocal in their warnings that older adults face a significant risk of developing severe illness if they contract the disease.
For many older citizens living in India, this involves reorienting themselves to a lifestyle fraught with new risks, without letting go of things that keep them sane — for example, prayer, physical activity and companionship.
"As the world practices social distancing, it is very easy to fall in the trap of isolation, which is something I am trying to avoid at all costs," said Shashi. "Instead, I have reconnected with my sister in a way that wasn't possible before."
Shashi and her sister, Phool Rajpal, 85, got married and moved to different cities in the 1950s. Their lives, too, moved in different directions.
It wasn't until early this year that unforeseen circumstances put them together, away from their children, grandchildren and the rest of the world.
"It's almost as if we are rediscovering each other," Shashi said. "Waking up together, going through our chores like cooking and cleaning, short walks around the house — this period is truly special for us."
The power of prayer
Religion is a key component of Indian life. As they grow older, men and women are expected to give up material wants and connect with God at a deeper level.
For some, this means starting their day at 4 a.m. with prayer. For others, it may be an afternoon spent reading religious scriptures. Finally, there are some who turn to spirituality instead of religion, spending their days in meditation.
As the pandemic affects visits from family or any plans to step out, time spent in prayer or meditation has helped many people deal with the stress of not knowing what comes next.
Entertainment has also taken a religious turn with evenings spent in front of the television watching re-runs of shows based on the ancient Sanskrit epics Ramayan and Mahabharat, Shashi explained.
Physical activity under lockdown
Charanjeet Kaur, 78, lives in an expansive residential complex in Gurgaon which is home to many retired army officers. The outbreak led to immediate panic among residents, and certain areas were designated as "containment zones" after some infections were reported.
After being forced to stay indoors for the initial 40 days of the lockdown, the residents vehemently voiced their concerns over the lack of physical activity and sought permission to walk within the premises of the complex.
The Resident Welfare Association finally gave in, allowing residents to walk outdoors as long as they wore masks, maintained a safe distance, and walked only in one direction — clockwise — around the complex.
"Most of us have led an active life as we were posted across India," Kaur said. "The pandemic may have changed that life forever, but as we walk — even with our masks — it gives us a semblance of normalcy."
"For days when stepping out is difficult, we can always walk to our balconies like those videos we saw out of Italy!" Kaur added, referring to videos coming out of pandemic-hit Italy where people interacted with neighbors by hosting happy hours on their balconies.
"I don't drink alcohol, so maybe I can bring out my cup of chai!"
Mastering technology but selectively
While many shied away from the use of technology before the lockdown, it has become a part of their lives now.
Kaur video calls her daughter in the United States as she wakes up each morning. "She's a doctor dealing with COVID-19 cases," she said. "Talking to her every day is the only way I can feel better about her being at the frontline."
Streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, as well as good old YouTube with its old Pakistani shows, keep her engaged all day. "There is no time to get bored," she said.
Kaur still hasn't been able to master phone apps that allow a person to get groceries delivered to the house but that's where her children and grandchildren have been helpful.
"I tell them what I need, and it reaches my doorstep just hours later," Kaur said. "But I still prefer to buy vegetables on my own. You can't tell how fresh it'll be with this internet thing."
For Shashi, the calendar is marked with Zoom meetings with her flower club and other organizations that she is a part of.
Technically, domestic flights have resumed, and Shashi can go back home now. However, there are too many unknown risks associated with air travel amid the health crisis. Long lines at airports, sitting in close proximity of fellow passengers, or the idea of wearing a PPE suit to catch a flight may not seem that attractive.
On the other hand, Shashi could just be stalling to spend some more time with her elder sister, like they did when they were kids.