How a 22-year-old came to call a senior care facility home

S Kayal, who works with E R Rajinikanth Old Age Home in Tamil Nadu’s Chengalpattu District, says she has found her calling among the residents

S Kayal, who works with E R Rajinikanth Old Age Home in Tamil Nadu’s Chengalpattu District, says she has found her calling among the residents.

“Caregiving often calls us to lean into love we didn’t know possible”.

–Tia Walker, author of The Inspired Caregiver: Finding Joy While Caring for Those You Love

The first time I see Kayal, she’s playfully scolding grey-haired men and women at a table for not eating well. I walk towards the 22-year-old caregiver at E R Rajinikanth Old Age Home, winding my way through the 25-odd people in the lunch hall.

S Kayal is from Ariyalur, in Tamil Nadu, but now lives in the home with the inmates, after she got a diploma in nursing. A friend in Chennai told her about the job in the senior care home that began operations in 2005, and offers its services free of cost. Now, she shares a room with a fellow nurse in a space she now calls home.

Her responsibilities include serving food to the elderly at mealtimes, going with them for a walk, organizing and playing games with them, watching TV together with the little community, and ensuring their needs are met.

A part of her work is keeping track of the medicines supplied by the team at Billion Hearts Beating, and also administering the meds through the day. While the medicines we supply are chiefly for diabetes, hypertension, joint pain, and general weakness, she says, “The elderly suffer more from loneliness rather than disease. They simply need someone to talk and listen to them.”

er rajinikanth old age home kayal

She says her world revolves around empathy and kindness: the empathy she feels towards those she lives with, and the kindness they show her. She speaks slowly, deliberately, pausing often, emphasizing words like caring and understanding. I want to listen, to ask her how a woman so young has such a great capacity for caregiving. It’s the feeling she has when the day’s work is done, she says: “The sense of satisfaction at having done something.”

She won’t name a favourite person, but she does talk about a woman whose memory of the day’s events escapes her. “She talks about older memories, tells us her son will come any minute to take her home,” says Kayal, who often gets food thrown at her. “I’m not scared,” she says, acknowledging mental illness for what it is: a deep seated need for love and acceptance.

Most people at the home are left here by their children. Some visit at festival time; many don’t take their parents’ calls.

While the home is supported mostly by the government, private donations are few, because the home has no marketing team or social media presence.

She says she has choices: of working for a bigger organization in a bigger city perhaps, but what keeps her staying here is the people. Though she has been here for just a year, she worries about them when she goes back to visit her parents. “Whenever I go to Ariyalur, I get a lot of phone calls from here. It makes my parents jealous,” she says, laughing.

The Billion Hearts Beating Foundation  provides medicines at no cost to senior care homes across India