The senior years can be the most comfortable and pleasurable period of our lives,” he says and at 77, Tami Tamitegama sets an admirable example of active aging.
Few of us realise that life expectancy has doubled in the last 60 years. “There are two million seniors in Sri Lanka, which would grow to 6 million within the next 30-40 years,” states Tami, who found that seniors were largely ignored as it was assumed that they would be looked after by their families.
A major stumbling block is that people have a negative attitude towards aging. “Age is equated with being sick and such a mindset is destructive; we need to break that cycle of thought and remove the associated negativity,” he says.
It is hardly surprising then that Tami Tamitegama is in his particular line of work, being President of Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation (LAF). Exuding a soothing calm, his relaxed, positive manner would put anyone at ease.
Tami’s message is simple, yet staggering. “Dementia, a collective term for a set of brain disorders, Alzheimer’s Disease being the most prevalent, will increase in intensity over the next few decades. In Sri Lanka, it is particularly difficult to deal with because of stigma, so we need to generate positive awareness within the community,” he stresses. In a report on the incidence of dementia produced by Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), it was found “remarkably, that a similar percentage of the population is affected by dementia irrespective of the country. There are roughly 120,000 persons with dementia in Sri Lanka, which is likely to jump exponentially to half a million by the middle of the century. Every family will experience dementia in their midst,” Tami acknowledged.
|Tami: ‘Miracles do happen’
A primary coping mechanism would be to “understand the dynamics of this silent epidemic which results in the loss of personality, and for this, massive awareness is required,” Tami emphasised. The next step would be to get the community to lead a healthy life; he is a firm advocate of active aging. “We have to learn how to live right; is there any reason for us to be ill?” he quips.
Being a holistic health practitioner means that Tami is aware of his body and mind and how they work, being conscious of his breath through years of practising yoga. “Yoga is for everyone; it lets you tap into universal energy and provides guidance on what to do with life. It gives me an immensely good feeling that my body and mind react to my ministrations. We have to go within to understand ourselves,” smiles Tami.
Here a trip down memory lane reveals that Tami’s father was his role model. “I come from a modest, traditional family. My father was a postmaster and it was from him that I learned yoga at the age of five. From him too, I learned the joys of selfless service; this has stayed with me all these many years. We are put on Earth for a purpose. I am happiest when I am serving.”
“I’ve always known that I wanted to see the world and was fortunate to have been a part of my school’s International Student Association in the 1940s,” Tami reminisces. To broaden their horizons, an enterprising school master brought along passengers from ships docking at Colombo harbour en route to Australia or the Middle East, to speak to students at assembly. In 1953, Tami joined the Army and won a scholarship to Sandhurst. “That is where I became an international citizen and realised that we are a part of the world community and a miniscule member of the universe. This gives me a great sense of freedom, of body and intellect.”
Migrating to Canada in the early 1960s, Tami worked in academia for 25 years. Taking early retirement, he returned to Sri Lanka with the specific intention of serving the community. “I was looking for some direction as to how to position myself and fell into counselling,” he explains. He eventually enrolled in a professional counselling programme, which led to his interest in mental health. While on a trip to Singapore to gain insight into how mental health issues were tackled there, friends suggested that he consider a commitment to dementia. The Asia-Pacific region’s Alzheimer’s network was in its founding stage then and it was by a quirk of fate that Tami and LAF became Sri Lanka’s representative on the world body, ADI.
Tami’s ongoing mission is to get dementia on the list of non-communicable diseases at the Ministry of Health.
Identifying people with mild cognitive impairment and educating them to lead a holistic lifestyle is an important aspect of Tami’s philosophy. His hypothesis is that in such cases, the onset of dementia is delayed, but the key question is, can it actually be reversed? Certainly, further studies are required in the areas of minimising the risk of dementia. “I am passionate about my conclusions. Nature doesn’t need proof; we must use nature as a catalyst to promote good health. People are responsible for their own lives. I believe that each person is the centre of the universe and that we have the power to inject positive energy into our own lives,” he says.
After nearly ten long years, the LAF’s very own care centre is finally coming to fruition. Tami has a holistic vision for the Longevity Centre, focussing on exploring alternative paths to promoting understanding the relationship with nature. “The Centre is a wonderful opportunity to look at disease prevention, especially dementia. My work at LAF is to look at the individual, to approach each case from a personal perspective. There needs to be a paradigm shift in people’s thought processes. Life should be a continuum of joy and happy living,” says Tami.
The naturalist in Tami shines through when he says “we consume too much organic junk, essentially a synonym for toxins. For me, all non-communicable diseases are linked. I believe they are caused by the serial accumulation of toxins in our bodies. Precautionary measures could be taken if we are fully alert by being in tune with nature.”
Tami would love to be able to continue LAF’s work solely through volunteers. “We need community volunteers from all over Sri Lanka, and of course funds, which must also come from within the community,” he says.
That universality of Alzheimer’s is close to home in Tami’s case too. His 94-year-old uncle Robert in Paris has dementia. While visiting Robert last year, Tami met his cousin Vladimir and was amazed by the latter’s dedication to marathon running. The Paris Marathon was on while Tami was there and the streams of enthusiastic participants energised him into coming up with the idea of Vladimir leading a similar run when he visits Colombo. “The whole object of the maiden Alzheimer’s Run in Sri Lanka is to promote awareness and is a splendid opportunity to raise funds to continue the work of LAF,” says Tami.
“Miracles do happen; don’t question them,” Tami ends with a twinkle in his eye.
The Run, in collaboration with The Colombo Hash House Harriettes, is on Saturday, February 5, taking off from Viharamahadevi Park (top of Green Path and Art Market) at 4 p.m. and Tami urges everyone to take out those running shoes and join in.