It’s raining and Vishranthi, a home for destitute women on Chennai’s East Coast Road, is drenched in calming silence. In the office, social worker and chairman Savithri Vaithi is complaining about her new chair. 'It’s too big,' she chides her staff affectionately. 'I live here not just because it’s so peaceful but to be connected with those who have come seeking help. Only then will we know how things work. I can’t sit in a posh chair and expect everything to run smoothly,' she smiles.
Savithri was born into a family of lawyers from Salem on October 1, World Elderly Day. After a comfortable childhood, she was forced to give up schooling when her family fell on hard times. 'I had to look for a job to support the family and found one in Ashok Vihar Women and Children’s Welfare Centre in Periampet.' It was here that she learnt a lot about life and the difficulties faced by the under-privileged. Later, she went on to do a course in medical social work.
After her marriage in 1954, she learnt baking, flower-making and other fine arts that she began to teach housewives with an aim to empower them. Together, they formed the Monday Charity Club as well. When someone mooted the idea of an old age home, Savithri took it up earnestly.
'We started Vishranthi in 1978. We sat with doctors, and discussed the needs and precautions needed to take care of the elderly. We wanted it to be for destitute women because the poor suffer more when they grow old. They are not fed, sometimes beaten, and often thrown out. We wanted to give them a safe place for their last days,' says Savithri. The Trust was begun in Chrompet in a rental home before it moved to the East Coast Road. Today, it has 150 elderly members, 30 staff and 10 helpers.
Vishranthi has separate blocks that house the old, the bedridden, and the mentally challenged, respectively, besides a nursing home for emergencies and a small orphanage. Now 82, Savithri too lives here, a collector of key chains by day, spending evenings with all the paatis, as she affectionately refers to her wards. Author of many books on old age, a directory of old-age homes, and a guide to starting and maintaining an old-age home, she is the recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award and Melwin Jones Worthy Fellow Award, among others.
'It is challenging to manage the elderly. They are in their second childhood. They get into small fights, get hurt or angry easily, but God has given me the gift of taking care of them,' says the not-so-young-herself Savithri. 'When the first death happened in our home, we went to the cremation ground and waited for the family. They never showed up. It was late at night and the undertakers were drunk. I lit the pyre that night. I have lit many pyres since.'