Thomas Kannampuzha, from Narakkal, near Kochi, runs three old-age homes in Ontario, Canada. He talks about his experiences
Photos: Thomas Kannampuzha. Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram. Murray Craig and Gwen Taylor got married on May 14, 2011. Murray was 98 while Gwen was 93. However, Murray died in 2013.
In 1966, the Narakkal-born Thomas Kannampuzha was a department head at New Standard Engineering company at Mumbai. At that time, Bal Thackeray had set up the Shiv Sena. One of his earliest campaigns was against South Indians.
In Thomas's department of 177 employees, only four were non-Maharastrians. “I could feel the animosity indirectly,” says Thomas. “They could not do anything directly because I was the boss. But I did not feel safe. So my option was to stay on in Mumbai and go through the difficult times or emigrate.”
Thomas opted for the latter. Since his wife Achamma was a nurse, it was easy for the couple to get immigration to Canada. They arrived in Kingston, Ontario, with sixteen dollars.
After working for a few years in private companies, in 1975, Thomas started an old age home. Now 40 years later, he is the President and CEO of ATK Care Group Limited, which runs three homes – River Glen Haven Nursing Home, Fordwith Village Nursing Home and Exeter Villa Nursing Home and Retirement Home – with a total of 300 residents and over 250 employees. The monthly fees for residents is $2000. While the government gives 64%, the rest is provided by the family of the resident.
“The average age of the inmates is 86,” says Thomas, while on a visit to Kochi. “We have some people who are 104 years old, with all their faculties intact. Around 50 per cent are physically active.”
All the homes have an activity department, which organises an exercise programme, music, dance and games. “The residents are kept busy throughout the day,” says Thomas. “Most of the time they are active participants.”
But a few are depressed, because they suffer from heart and diabetes problems. “It is difficult to be happy when you are sick,” says Thomas. “The idea of the activity department is to divert their attention. Since they are always meeting members of the same age group, they tell stories to each other, like their experiences in World War II.”
Sometimes, they also fall in love. At the Exeter Villa, a romance bloomed between Murray Craig and Gwen Taylor. They ate together in the dining room, and would visit each other regularly in their private rooms.
Murray courted Gwen for a year before they decided to marry. This event took place on May 14, 2011. Murray was 98 while Gwen was 93. Then they started living together. Unfortunately, Murray died in 2013. “In our homes, we encourage these emotions,” says Thomas. “It gives the residents a chance to enjoy life.”
Interestingly, the ratio between the sexes is skewed: 70 per cent are women while the rest are men. “Usually, men takes on all the stresses of life, and die sooner,” says Thomas. “But they also don't take care of their health very well.”
Meanwhile, running an old age home is not easy. “A lot of people ask me how I maintain my sanity,” says Thomas. “Apart from dissatisfied residents, we have to deal with the families. They may have numerous complaints. Most people think we can do everything with the little subsidy that we get from the government. They don't understand how much money has to be set aside to pay the salaries and benefits like pension and health insurance for nurses and personal support workers.”
Another reason for the dissatisfaction is psychological. “When your father or mother is at the peak of health, children regard them as powerful people,” says Thomas. “But when they see their parents not able to do anything by themselves, they feel sad. They don't realise that this is Nature's way.”
Some of the parents suffer from Alzhemeir's Disease and don't recognise their own progeny. “That is very painful,” says Thomas. “The children feel the staff is the cause for this decline. So they vent their anger on them. But at the same time, there are many children who also shower praise, knowing the difficult work that we do.”
Sadly, some children don't even come to the home. “They visit their parents once a year, on Father's or Mother's Day although they may be living in the same city,” says Thomas.
Usually, that happens because of pressure from the spouse. “The wife does not want the husband to waste his time with his parents,” says Thomas. “They prefer to spend time with their children. There are a lot of selfish people around. The closeness between the generations that is there in Indian families is absent.”
Thomas' heart also beats for his native land. He has done numerous social works, like donating beds, wheelchairs and walkers to various hospitals in Kochi, all through his Narakkal-based friend Cherian Parakal. “Thomas has donated two dialysis machines to the Kristu Jayanti Hospital,” says Cherian. “He has also provided land and the money to build 28 houses for the poor. And helped many people to undergo kidney transplants, as well as heart surgery.”
Finally, when asked about Kochi, Thomas says, “The city is developing well. It is a bit chaotic, but I believe it is for the good of the people. It increases employment opportunities.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)