DOBARA: Don’t be disheartened with your old age; Life is to live and enjoy

Zeenath Khan

To watch an elderly person blow out the candles on a birthday cake is a pleasure. Their face lights up with joy as innocent as a child’s. Indeed, our seniors derive as much delight from birthdays as children. But sadly, many senior citizens in India and all over the world celebrate their birthdays alone.

Dobara Birthday Party

While watching a short film on DOBARA—a Hyderabad-based organization whose mission is to promote well-being amongst the elderly, a screenshot of a snowy-haired lady celebrating her birthday made my eyes well with tears. Too often, society neglects the needs of the elderly. We believe it suffices to cater to their physical and medical well-being. The reality is somewhat different.

In conversation with Mateen Ansari, founder of DOBARA, I learned of her long- cherished desire to serve the elderly. Mateen would make frequent trips to the USA to spend time with her children and grandchildren. While grandchildren are undoubtedly the greatest blessing of one’s golden years, she realized physical fitness and intellectual curiosity were key factors in being an engaged grandparent.

MS Education Academy

“I have always loved learning,” said Mateen. “So, I enrolled in a master’s degree in Gerontology at the University of Southern California. And I am proud to say that I finished it at the age of 64.”

(Gerontology means the scientific study of old age, the process of ageing, and the particular problems of the elderly. It encompasses not just the physical aspects of aging, but the mental, social, and societal ones as well.)

That was in 2014. After living in the United States for a few years, Mateen could not help but feel Hyderabad lacked an organized support system for its seniors. She launched DOBARA soon after. In its initial years, its activities centered around social get-togethers for the over 60s, with Mateen directing most events. The Ansari home in Banjara Hills functioned as a venue for many DOBARA events and friends offered their homes for senior recreation activities and day-care. In 2017, DOBARA was registered as a non-profit trust.

Over the years, DOBARA’s membership has swelled to 250. Being over 60 isn’t a prerequisite to joining DOBARA. In fact, DOBARA actively encourages younger members. Fostering intergenerational relationships is a goal listed in DOBARA’s manifesto. DOBARA also partnered its elderly members with school children. The youngsters were excited to teach the seniors technological skills while the seniors lent them a non-judgmental ear to confide their teenage angst. Here I must mention that DOBARA refers to its members as volunteers and classifies them into three tiers: seniors, in-betweeners, and juniors. Photos show juniors pushing the seniors on wheelchairs as they enjoy a heritage walk around Charminar.

In fact, the pre-pandemic years witnessed a slew of activity in the DOBARA stratosphere. Mateen coordinated with the organizers of Hyderabad’s famous NUMAISH to allow wheelchair access and DOBARA volunteers to bring their cars all the way within the grounds. While watching the film on DOBARA, the lively fund-raising melas, fashion shows, talent shows, game evenings and music nights regaled me. DOBARA’s seniors seemed to be having a grand time. They also undertook their share of social work; be it teaching English to underprivileged children, visiting children’s cancer wards, or dropping off snacks at old-age homes.

In the words of Sameen, Mateen’s daughter, and DOBARA’s Creative Director and Virtual Wellbeing Co-Ordinator: The best way to help yourself is to help others.

Mateen and Sameen Ansari

Cut to March 2020, the pandemic halted DOBARA’s real-world activities. By April 1st, 2020, Sameen had formulated a two-week schedule of online activities. She structured them against three keystones: Gerontology, Neuroplasticity, and Ikigai.

Ikigai is a Japanese philosophy which in short means ‘the reason for one’s being’. Neuroplasticity is the ability of a human brain to develop in relation to external and internal stimuli.

With catchy titles such as Tasty Tuesdays (recipe sharing day) and Flashback Fridays, DOBARA helped seniors alleviate the isolation caused by the pandemic. Another interesting feature is their Chai and Chai sessions. Seniors share their life stories while a volunteer films them.

“Our seniors feel like stars for the day, and they love it,” says Sameen.

Many of us will identify with the struggle of finding caregivers, physiotherapists, and physicians for our parents. DOBARA has an updated resource page with relevant information. Should a senior need someone to drive them to a hospital or have groceries delivered, volunteers step in to help.

I asked Sameen about DOBARA’s post-pandemic plans. She said they have established a Senior Resource Center in Sheikhpet. Under its roof, they will conduct yoga sessions and board games like carrom and chess. Shelves are already up in the library. It will be one of the first in India to stock large-print and audiobooks. Volunteers can work shifts at the library and in any other area of their interest. To encourage upcycling, DOBARA encourages members to bring in pre-loved clothes and unwanted household items. Clothing goes into an almirah which is a treasure trove for unusual vintage fashion.

Those with aging parents view DOBARA as a blessing. The activities, they claim have unearthed hidden talents and helped their cognitive skills. One senior said she regained her confidence and made good friends through DOBARA. Mateen and Sameen are most modest about their achievements. But their passion and dedication towards DOBARA is contagious.

“DOBARA is all about happiness and celebrating advancing years,” says Sameen, whose creativity is evident in every slide. A visit to their website, with colorful images of feisty seniors, will rivet you.

Let’s indoctrinate DOBARA’s credo and redefine the experience of aging. In conclusion, I must say that while I have written a fair number of articles in the last few years, no topic has filled my heart with as much warmth as DOBARA. Many thanks to Mateen and Sameen Ansari for providing me with the information to write this article.

Zeenath Khan is based in Mumbai. She writes columns and blogs and is in the process of writing a book on Hyderabad.

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