Nightmare for the Elderly

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Growing old can be as graceful as it can be a nightmare, especially where there is absence of proper health care schemes targeted at age related diseases, as Martins Ifijeh observes in this report on the plight of aged Nigerians

The truth dawned on Pa Salami like twilight in a shuttered room when his body physiology began to fail. His once bright and sharp eyes grew dim, revealing only murkiness even on sunny days. His once sharp memory and admired intelligence had given way to dementia, which causes memory loss and childhood behaviour in adults. A lot of things have changed. Suffice to say that he is now a shadow of his former self.

These changes are presently the reality for the 83-year-old former civil servant with the Nigerian Railway Corporation, who was once full of life and did everything by himself during his heyday, including driving, to make ends meet for his family.

Age-related Ailments
But things had fallen apart with old age and its resultant effects like Alzheimer, arthritis, urinary incontinence, and loss of cognitive ability. All that matters to him now is how to fight for his health, while needing the support of people around him to do the basic things like defecating and moving from one point of the house to another.

In a chat with THISDAY during his youngest daughter’s traditional marriage ceremony in his compound in Auchi, a town in Edo State, even though not as coherent as he used to be, Pa Salami, who spent some of this youthful days in Britain and Germany, explained the frustration that has greeted him since old age began to set in, adding that his greatest hope was to be enrolled in a healthcare scheme that would take care of his failing body, among others.

Salami lamented, “Several years ago, this my house used to be full of life just the way it is now. My children would run round the compound, visitors were always coming every now and then. Relations and community people never ceased from here. But with time, my children began to grow up, school took some out of the house, and then jobs and then building their own families finally took them all away from the house. They are all scattered now in different places in this country. And then, the unthinkable happened. I lost my wife 15 years ago. Since then, this house has been the shadow of itself, leaving me and a relation all alone.

“Over time, I discovered I could no longer do the things I used to do. Couldn’t drive anymore due to constant joint pain, couldn’t see far, even moving from one point to the other became the most difficult thing given that I used to play football and run those days for my school. Now, I have a lot of challenges, my body is failing every day. I am always ill these days.”

He explained that the money he gets from his children was not enough to tackle most of his treatments, as cases were being diagnosed on him every now and then, adding that one of his major challenges was not having someone around the house who really understands what he was going through.

Going down memory lane, Pa Salami explained that while in Britain, his aged neighbours had social support from the government that took care of their healthcare needs, wishing there was one in Nigeria that targets the health of the country’s elders.
“We have done a lot for our society and country during our youthful days. Most of our children are not financially okay to support their elderly parents. Can’t our government just establish a health scheme for elders in this country, say from 70 years old and above?” he queried.

Nightmare
Pa Salami is among the very few fortunate aged Nigerians who get stipends from their children for health support, even though he complained of the money not been enough to cater for his medical treatments. But the case of many other aged persons in the country depicts sorrier tales.

For instance, Mrs. Modupe Adegoke, who lives in Ayobo area of Lagos, is not a happy woman. Sickness and hunger are her best friends even at the age of 70. The stench from her room would cause any healthy person to develop instant sickness. Her three children cannot even fend for themselves and their own families, not to mention taking care of her health.

Modupe has been suffering from arthritis for many years, coupled with other pockets of age related illnesses. Meanwhile, she has never done diabetes or blood pressure test, neither, does she know if there are other underlying ailments affecting her, other than arthritis. However, her primary concern isn’t her health. All she wants first is food then healthcare.

When THISDAY visited her one evening, it was not only with a pen and paper to write her sorry tales, but with food. Incidentally, that was her first meal for the day. Asked if she has visited the hospital in recent times, Modupe said she has never visited the hospital in 10 years, adding that the only time she had medical check-up was when a non-governmental organisation did a free screening and treatment exercise in her community.

She lamented, “That was where I was told I may have developed arthritis. I am always in pain anytime I try to move my legs, waist and other joints. Moving from one point to the other is very difficult for me. I also constantly have cough and headache, and I am always weak these days. My children have no meaningful jobs; sometimes, their own children come here to see if I have food so they can eat. Who can I run to? My health is failing and my stomach is always empty.”

Destitution
Millions of elderly Nigerians are suffering one form of neglect or the other, especially health wise, which ordinarily should be the responsibility of their families, government and the society.

According to available statistics, Nigeria has the largest number of elderly people over 60 years of age in Sub-Sahara Africa, with majority of them living in destitution and left at the mercy of good Samaritans.

In Nigeria, the burden of care for the elderly squarely rests on family members despite the provisions in the 1999 Constitution, Section 14. 2(b), which states, “The security and welfare of its people shall be the primary purpose of the government” and in Section 16, sub-section 2(d) promises, “That suitable and adequate shelter and suitable and adequate food, reasonable national minimum living wage, old age care and pensions and unemployment, sick benefits and welfare of the disabled are provided for all citizens.”

Old Age Care
The old age care, according to analysts, include welfare package for the old- involving stipends, medical care, special fund for them if needed, and other social schemes that should sustain or improve their quality of life.

In 1982 at Vienna, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a set of principles for older persons, recommending that all Member States incorporate them in their programmes for the old. This is in recognition that as people age, they become less active, frailer and more prone to diseases associated with aging. Nigeria is a member of the United Nations.

Speaking with THISDAY, a health expert, Dr. Raymond Olumide, said one thing noticed in Nigerian hospitals was that most elderly people were only brought to the hospital after their cases must have reached critical levels, adding that the society and its government do not take the health of the elderly seriously.

Olumide stated, “Most times, people brush aside the health challenges of elders because they believed since they are already old, it would not be out of place for them to have cases like arthritis, diabetes, stroke, cancer, among others. But the truth is that, they are wrong. Arthritis and other health issues affecting aged people can be treated, while the elderly live quality lives till God say its time.

“The quality of life we give to the elderly goes a long way in determining their lifespan. Families, loved ones, and people around aged people shouldn’t wait till their cases have reached a point that cannot be managed before bringing them to the hospital.”
He stated that oftentimes people get too busy with their own families without thinking about the wellbeing of their aged parents. “At such age, the best any family, society and the government can do for them is to make sure there is food on their table, as well as make sure they get proper treatment for health issues that might result due to their old age.”

On the part of the government, Olumide said it was high time the Nigerian government stepped up its game by putting social welfare programmes in place that deliberately targets the elderly, especially in the area of stipends as well as healthcare.

“Nigeria’s elderly are disadvantaged in terms of systemic support from the government, yet the growing size of this supposedly respected group makes it more important that they be given this sense of belonging which they deserve.

“I call on our National Assembly and the entire government to put legislations in place to tackle these issues. The ministry of health should also lay down programmes specifically to address issues relating to the elderly in the country,” he said.