Different Dialogues : Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan

In conversation with Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan - Founder of Dignity Foundation (India).
Educational background: M.A. in Psychiatric Social Work, Madras University. Ph.D. in Sociology, Bombay University.
Professional background: Research experience UGC Fellow, Bombay University. Research Associate in Pune through Indian Institute of Education. Corporate Manager in Macmillan India, Bangalore. Managing Editor, Head of Publication, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
International Experience: Specializing in target audience understanding. Been a USIS International Visitor to study university publishing. She was a Commonwealth Fellow studying the same in UK. She has visited Napier Institute of Publishing in Scotland for study and training in academic editing and publishing. Worked in Simon and Schuster, England, for specialist study in university publishing.

It is the earliest part of the evening. A passing cloud is indicating an unexpected monsoon shower; duly to reach the point of my destination – Dignity Foundation, I am in a hurry not to be caught in the traffic of Mumbai… and I am already late. After I have covered the main roads, the ivory yellowing sun in still intact to guide me to a narrow lane where the office of Dignity Foundation is situated on the ground floor. Curiously, the interior area seems much larger than I would have imagined. It’s a space trapped between time, rigour and a special character of its own. Once there, the irresistible calm fervour of Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan kept me enthralled throughout the course of our dialogue. Where did I read?... the sparkle in a drop of dew is sieved through dawn so all that remains is sparkle. Sheilu’s calm fervour possesses all the possibilities of these words.

In the year 2000, a reputed Indian newspaper, The Hindu, drew its attention on the notable work Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan is doing with her wishes. ‘If aging is no longer a dreaded word, if some senior citizens are beginning to think that there is life after retirement, if many of the commonly held myths associated with ageing are exploded, the credit for it goes in no small measure to Sheilu Srinivasan.’

Between 2000 and now, whatever Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan has wished for humanity is sustained and followed through her own organization: Dignity Foundation which she set up in 1995 for the elderly.

Born in Southern India in Madurai, Sheilu from her childhood was drawn to the injustices meted out to the working class; at that time, she was merely a child of 10. She retains the memories of giving away money to the needy people “stealthily”. Suffering animals moved her spirit to save them. While growing, she realized the curses of the caste system prevailing around her. She was born in a Brahmin family and was aware how the society was structured. What she observed disturbed her as the whole set up was ridden with curses. Therefore, a part of the girl in her became a ‘rebel’… a rebel against blind ritualistic customs and the atrocities that came out of them. In real life, Sheilu became a fighter for social causes. ‘You are born into a caste and then people are punished for the rest of the life.’ The reality was appalling.

Through her vocational guidance, Sheilu also well understood the root of the diseases at a mental hospital where she worked in Chennai. I asked Sheilu, ‘Did the environment of working with mental patients effect you emotionally where you might have felt like not going back to help them?’ From Sheilu’s reply, it seems every job, every placement made her take one step closer to her goals. In fact, by the time she was 22 years of age, the young lady had made up her mind that she would try improving people’s lives… lives of those who were vulnerable. So her journey found a way out of challenges… challenges standing inside a circle where loneliness, exposure, compulsions of growing old or disabled were entangling individuals with endless suffering. Sheilu keenly shaped her inner will to heal the infirm, and those who were alone. Then, by and by, volunteers became her many arms and her driving force; volunteers almost came in droves to take Dignity Foundation’s message to others.

Sheilu shared, “Qualifying in social work grew different antennas in me, where I would be instantly sensitive to suffering. Obviously, the academic pursuit of social work contributed because that is much more grounded in academic social work”. Thus, Sheilu’s passed years of knowledge and experience became pools of rewarding results. M.A. in Psychiatric Social Work, Ph.D. in Sociology; 7 years in Research experience, 7 years in Publishing brought her an overall greater versatility. Of course, towards 1994-1995, she had identified her niche to concentrate on the specific section of elderly citizens of society. ‘There was no social service, as such, existing for them. Dignity Foundation for services to senior citizens was to bring hope, light, security, cheer for them’, she stated with conviction.

Sheilu recollects. When phones came from elderly people, Sheilu’s small team would close office at 4 p.m. and attend to those calls of distress. ‘Loneliness is very serious, that was the conclusion. So I used the vehicle of the magazine, Dignity Dialogue. In fact, the same editorial team would pitch in to visit the place from where a call originated’.

As the group progressed, Sheilu made a newer idea work and it really worked! She swiftly circulated the message to others about the way her team was doing the rounds with her. She got 128 volunteers in a matter of no time! With the setting up of small, vital facilities like the HELPLINE, things were gaining a momentum.

In 1987, Sheilu’s husband – Gopal Srinivasan’s work brought the family to Mumbai from Bangalore, on a transfer. While residing in Mumbai from 1987-1995, Sheilu’s years were equally resourceful; she worked in TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) in the capacity of: Managing Editor, editing a very well-respected magazine: Indian Journal of Social Work.

In 1995, when Sheilu launched the magazine: Dignity Dialogue for the sake of Dignity Foundation, the operation showed quick success as it received greater communication and wider audience for consideration. Ever since, the readership has increased, thereby, bringing a harvest of advantages. Dignity Dialogue (Editor – Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan, Executive Editor – Shobha Nair) is a journal for productive living; it is about the best way to ‘remain’ young. In the April 2013 issue, I see Dr. Lilatai Gokhale smiling on the cover page and saying, “Life at 95 is Mighty Fine!”… and that too with an exclamation mark of full pride!

Additionally, there is much more to grasp from Dignity Dialogue. The interviews of persons like Dr. Lilatai Gokhale are the regulars in the journal; there are programme schedules of Dignity Foundation. Readers write letters to the editors. There is information on health, tax deductions, yoga and even technology! Senior citizens send their articles to Dignity Dialogue, and there is always a section on humour, along with welcome announcements of Dignity Companionship Carnival to promote companionship, entertainment and discovery among senior citizenship.

As for the total activities covering the orbit of Dignity Foundation – the activities are vast and many. Dignity Companionship Volunteers visit homes of the lonely, enhance existing human resources and networking. For seniors in difficult circumstances, Dignity HELPLINE 61381111 is available. Social support system is provided for abused elders through counseling, police help, legal help and other problem-solving-techniques. For seniors looking for alternative living arrangements, Dignity Lifestyle Retirement Township with cottages situated in a 25 acre plot with modern amenities for independent hassle-free-life after 60 – has been developed in Maharashtra.

Dignity Foundation is having the means to assist senior citizens in other ways, too. Senior Citizens ID cards (Govt. of Maharashtra) – are issued at 25 Dignity centres in Mumbai and 90 Dignity centres in other cities of Maharashtra. Assistance by the way of legal, financial, tax, consumer grievances, insurance problems, medical reference is given through professional advice. Moreover, reaching out to seniors in lower income localities, Dignity on Wheels – a mini Foundation travels to all localities to deliver service to them. For Dementia, Dignity Dementia Care Day Care Centres, and Respite care services exist. Ration supply for seniors who require support for daily food and nutritional requirements – is being handled by Dignity Foundation.

Is there a stopping point for Dignity Foundation? No! The kind of work Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan is doing with her innovative ideas and immense zeal, I don’t think there will be a stopping point for the organization. Looking at the whole frame: Dignity Dialogue is reaching more and more destinations, connecting Dignity Foundation to a much larger sphere. Dignity Chai Masti is in many centres in Mumbai. Monday to Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. with tea, entertainment, learning – there’s a lot happening at Chai Masti! Plus, Dignity Dialogue’s anniversary is an event by itself – celebrating with celebrity thinkers and performers – the meaning of dignity. Membership is available with incentives for everyone.

Dr. Sheilu Srinivasan’s work has been recognized for her achievements since many years. In 1999, she was nominated as one of The Times of India’s “10 Magnificent Lives that Changed quality of life in Mumbai”. Several times, she has been awarded by Rotary Club of Mumbai. Indian Merchants Chambers felicitated her among: Winning Women in 2004. Vayoshreshta Samman for “Economic Leadership” was conferred in 2009. Moreover Sheilu was nominated by AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), USA as Associate Member of AARP Global Network. In the year 2011, she became Member, Research Advisory Board – Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, GOI (Government of India).

The evening was drawing to a close with time flying on wings. Even before the interview, questions were brewing on my mind with a concern. I asked Sheilu, “How do you heed sticky situations where your volunteers get into the mess of a family dispute or a brawl over your right to see that the senior citizen is not being neglected or abused? How do you draw the line between the follow up? Between heartfelt duty and legality, what are the rules to protect you?” I pictured to myself the sorry scary scene of long drawn spate of law-suits following. Sheilu replied, “Social work means lots of risk-taking. When you rescue a prostitute, there’s a lot of danger. But, you do rescue the women. It’s the same with my volunteers. For a true worker, nothing is frightful. Therefore, the conviction of the cause you’re working for gives you the strength to face problems, even threatening ones. Besides, as a registered organization, the license to perform spells our duties and gives us protection by law.”

To any mind with a logical thinking: the only stable state is the one which looks into the rights and needs of every individual – young, old of all genders and creed. That’s how I am thinking, too. After meeting up with Sheilu, I understood her excellent contribution towards society; equally, there is no doubt that she has been able to train good people on her staff role. She was praising the people who are working with her… it seems Dignity Foundation is possessing the heart and mind of vigour and skill.

And how had Sheilu balanced her role as a wife and a mother? In receiving her spouse’s encouragement in so many ways – Sheilu’s face approached a full smile. It was more than apparent that Gopal Srinivasan has played an important role in organizing his wife’s favourite dream. I was thinking: in instance after instance, in the daily business of living, which also includes nurturing marriage – the comradeship between the partners is ever so crucial… it requires sacrifice and knack to achieve the sensitive balance. The Srinivasans have more than managed it.

Just as I am concluding the interview, I feel it is apt to add a quote about Sheilu by another newspaper. The Afternoon prints: ‘Being perceived as a ‘Fairy Godmother’, as a ‘friendly and warm firebrand’ to an ‘activist Sociologist’, Sheilu’s high profile personality matches the speed and innovativeness of services initiated by Dignity Foundation’.

And how should I say it in my way is: Lagey raho… Carry on! Sheilu. God bless. I am remembering Sheilu’s words, ‘You need to grow old and not get old’.

Q 1. What has been the turning point of your life?
A. The bold venturing into magazine publishing that has triggered off a slew of services at the request of senior citizen readers! From 9 to 5 job to have launched into an social entrepreneur is the turning point…

Q 2. If you could go back in time, what would you want to do?
A. Played lot more badminton at the state and national level, along with working for a social cause.

Q 3. What are your future dreams?
A. To have 35 language editions of Dignity Dialogue magazine and 35 Dignity Lifestyle retirement townships in India – one for each state.

For further information on Dignity Foundation, check website:

Geeta Chhabra

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