With increasing neglect by family and friends, coupled with the pressure of making ends meet, a growing number of elderly people are resorting to care homes to spend their final days on earth. Chiemelie Ezeobi writes
The woman in the picture now lives at the Regina Mundi Home for the Elderly in Mushin, a Lagos community. She was abandoned by her family. “Isolation, discrimination, neglect and poverty are forcing elderly people to live a dismal life in care homes across the country,” says Olubunmi Owosho, a social psychologist.
At Regina Mundi Home for the Elderly, some of the people at the home were abandoned by their families in their old ages while some actually arrived there with the help of their family members who could no longer cope with caring for their needs.
“It is important to make the elderly feel that they are still very relevant to the society. Some of them have worked for years and have contributed their quota to the society but were abandoned in their old age,” says Anthonia Adebowale, a reverend sister.
“Some have children whom we have to practically force to come and see them while others have irreconcilable differences with their relatives.
“The elderly are often seen as the reservoirs of knowledge and the voice of wisdom whose fountain of experience are often needed to steer the ship of life. With the blessing of old age often comes the maturity to handle issues and therefore deserve to be supported and made happy and comfortable in the twilight of their ages,” she explained.
Reports suggest that there is evidence that the traditional practice of caring for parents began to erode under harsh economic conditions in urban areas across the country.
For instance, there is absence of a social security system and only a minute percentage of the population older than 60 receives pensions before death.
Analysts say, rapid urbanisation has displaced the elderly from their status and places them on the lowest rung of the ladder.
According to Uche Nwobodo, it is very wrong to abandon one’s parents especially at old age. “In other parts of the world, these people have a place prepared for them by the government with trained caregivers to look after them but sadly the same does not really hold true in Nigeria except for a few homes that are taking up such challenge to care for their needs. Different factors especially mordernisation has and will continue to contribute to the increasing patronage of these homes,” he said.
In Nigeria, according to the 2008 Draft National Policy on Ageing, the number of people above 60 is said to be increasing. The number of elderly people who are 60 years and above was estimated to be 5.8 million in 2005. It is expected to triple to 16 million by 2030 and increase to 47 million by the year 2060.
Last year, in a statement to commemorate the World Health Day, the Minister of Health, Professor Christian Onyebuchi Chukwu said currently, there was low level of awareness of the challenges and needs of the elderly people in Nigeria. “This is due to the fact that they constitute a relatively small proportion of the population. In the presence of competing health needs, they are relegated to the background. Elderly people are seriously threatened by poverty, wants and needs, deprivation, abuse, ill health, social exclusion, loneliness and suffering among others,” he said.
Old age, which comprises those nearing or surpassing the average life span of human beings, has its attendant challenges. For many, they develop disabilities with age that often render them incapacitated. For instance, some health problems and common ailments that generally affect senior citizens are blood pressure, cardiac problems, diabetes, joint pains, kidney infections, cancer and tuberculosis.
Once they occur, these diseases may take a long time to cure due to advancement in age. However, some disabilities and chronic diseases associated with ageing can be prevented or delayed if the elderly get proper attention early.
Perhaps certain policy interventions are required. Professor Chukwu said as much in his statement during the commemoration of the World Health Day 2012. He said: “the Draft National Policy on Ageing has embodied firm recommendations of various sections toward ensuring and securing the maximum care and well-being of the elderly Nigerian citizens. These include protection of elderly human rights, promote all relevant measures to safeguard and continually advance elderly needs, especially in areas of essential services such as income, security, health care, nutrition, housing, recreation and social integration.”
But, little is now known about the implementation of the draft policy. And though the government lags behind in formulating a strong policy that will help to cater to the needs of senior citizens, private initiatives like Reginal Mundi Home are taking in the elderly abandoned by their families.
On the criteria they use in choosing those to be admitted at the home, Adebowale said her organisation is provided with information first by St. Vincent of the Poor Society and then they take it up from there. “The society looks for such people and then informs us on their findings.”
“However, we just don’t accept them into the home like that, we take steps to carry out our own findings to verify whether their families are able to cater for them or not. We take the genuine cases because we don’t want to encourage families to dump their parents here with us,” she said.
Pointing in the direction of one of the elderly moving from dining area to her bedroom, she said: “She was taken off the streets by the Catholic Church in Badagry and catered for before she was brought to the home in Mushin.”
“She was brought to us after she was thrown out by her family. They accused her of being a witch but we heard that the true reason might be because she converted to the Catholic faith.
“We have been taking care of her for years and she is getting better. When she was brought to the home, she was not able to work unaided because arthritis had crippled her joints but now she can walk unaided.”
Reacting to THISDAY’s observation that the concept of a home for the elderly is uncommon in Africa, she said has not deterred people from making special requests to bring in their aged relatives.
She said, “You will be surprised at the number of people that want to keep their aged family members with us but we try to discourage them, especially when they are confirmed to have stroke or suffer from other medical conditions.
“We turn down their request because we are indeed Africans. At the home, we take care of only the extreme cases. We encourage people to take care of their aged relatives and not look for where to dump them. They are not witches. They are just lonely for companionship.”
On the challenges inherent in running the home, she listed funding as a major limitation constantly faced. According to her, the home needs funding to be able to get medical assistance always to the home as well as to procure the services of a physiotherapist.
“In this Home, one thing is paramount; we need to keep them fit and agile. This is where physiotherapy comes in. The exercise helps to keep them strong and going at all times.
“Asides keeping them fit, we need an 18-seater bus urgently to be able to move them around as the occasion demands. It’s a major challenge because one of them is suffering from glaucoma and needs to be constantly taken to the hospital.
“There some of the elderly who are not in our Home but who need care also and we try as much as possible to visit them all the time. The bus will go a long way to enable us visit them when the need arises.”
Also alarmed by the increase in decentralisation of the family unit, Publisher, Jemima Magazine, Mrs. Vera Aigbonoga, is one of those that reiterated the need to care for the elderly. Recently, she put together a forum to raise funds for the elderly home in Mushin. The rationale was borne out of the belief that once the family unit is intact, it would ensure the wholeness of the society at large.
She said: “The elderly are fountains of knowledge from where one can always gain a lot of insight. It is of paramount importance that we do not abandon our parents based on mere utterance from a religious point of view.”
But Oge Abiola throws a poser: “What will you do if your parents are senile? Can you look after them since they require constant care and attention? She asks. According to her, most of them who resort to old people’s home are not privileged to provide constant care for their aged parents due to either the nature of their jobs or the nature of the illness. “
She added: “What I don’t support is abandoning one’s parents to her fate. I’ve been around and there are some old people’s homes that are better than some people’s houses. As long as the home is properly equipped, I see nothing wrong with the idea.”