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Old people’s homes: Mixed fortunes of Nigeria’s senior citizens

Coupled with a lack of social structure, Nigeria’s growing old population faces a dilemma as there are not enough homes to cater for their welfare, writes ARUKAINO UMUKORO

From the enclosure of the space where he sat, Pa Joshua, 78, watched the children playing in the compound of Regina Mundi Catholic Church, Mushin, Lagos. Probably wondering what it felt like to be young and vibrant again.

As he savoured the afternoon breeze outside, he finally relaxed and agreed to speak briefly with our correspondent. He had previously been admitted at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, until a few months ago, when he came into the old people’s home. Since then, Pa Joshua’s recovery from stroke has improved and his speech is more coherent than before, he told SUNDAY PUNCH.

“Is that one of your visitors?” one of the attendants asked him on seeing our correspondent.

According to Pa Joshua, his daughter had brought him to the Regina Mundi Home for the elderly after he was discharged from LUTH. “Living here has now given me a new lease of life,” he said.

“At home, I would have been alone. Loneliness is a disease, it kills you faster at old age. But here, I discuss with people and watch television, and when I’m tired, I can go outside to sit down and take in the cool breeze. I see people every day. My people also visit me regularly. I am also well catered for here and I eat good food,” he told our correspondent. Just then, one of the home attendants brought some freshly washed garden eggs for him in a bowl.

“And I have already eaten yam porridge for breakfast,” Pa Joshua said, admitting that he was lucky to be in the home.

However, there are many more Nigerians like him who have been brow-beaten by the harsh weather of life and, because of diverse reasons, do not have anybody to properly take care of them in their old age. As such, it is common to see some old people begging on the streets in Lagos and other parts of Nigeria.

Celina Onwunaya, in her eighties, would have been one of the lots – old, feeble and neglected, until she was brought to the home by her elder brother over a month ago.

“I came to Lagos when one of my cousins, who used to visit me at home in the East, fell sick. When she couldn’t come, I decided to come and visit her. Unfortunately she’s dead now. My husband and our only son are also dead, but my son’s wife and children are alive. My elder sister also died two years ago,” she said.

According to her, she, like her husband, retired as teachers in Imo State. “This place is quite different from where I come from and I don’t understand their language here. I don’t have many friends here, unless those who speak English,” she said.

Although her voice was feeble, she spoke in fluent English. Mama Celina, as she is called in the home, smiled a lot while she talked to SUNDAY PUNCH. She laughed when she was asked what her favourite food was. “I like all the food here and my family brings me food sometimes too, which I share with others here,” she said, adding that she hardly eats much nowadays because it made her urinate more. As she spoke, she also kept herself busy, like some of her female ‘friends’ in the common sitting room of the home, breaking corn seeds from the cobs. Her male counterparts watched the football match being showed on television.

Another old person in the house, who declined to give his name, noted that he couldn’t speak with our correspondent because it was his prayer time. But he ended up discussing religion, politics, the fallen standard of education, and the poor welfare of pensioners, the disabled and old people in the country and the failure of Nigerian leaders.

“The government has allowed the education system to deteriorate. They go to London and see what is going on there in terms of development and say they’ve been to London, but they don’t have the London sense, their sense is carcass. But I’m not abusing anybody. Our leaders are not sincere. They should go back to the school of conscience and do feasibility studies on how to relate with pensioners and take care of old people,” he said.

At a point, one of his mates cautioned him that he was ‘talking too much’, and that it was time for them to go for the afternoon mass. Just then, one of the female home attendants came and led him by the hand to the church opposite the home. He beckoned on our correspondent to follow them while he kept on talking about the need for the country to do more for old people, pensioners and the disabled.

“These are the people government should take care of. May God forgive all our sins but they (government) are not good to us or Nigerians,” he lamented. Being old in Nigeria, he said, was full of regrets.

“It is also regretful for Nigeria, not only the old person. They should give old people a federal minister who should be a clergy, who would be in charge of the old people’s homes. A lot of pensioners and old people are suffering, something should be done for them, they served the country well, that is what is being done abroad,” he emphasised.

Although Reverend Mother Anthonia Adebowale, who was the Sister-in-charge of the home, said she couldn’t speak with our correspondent because of her busy schedule, she however gave SUNDAY PUNCH the permission to speak with some of the old people in the home, but asked that their pictures should not be taken.

The old people in the home were less than twenty, a large number of whom have been abandoned by their family and relatives.

“A lot of the people here don’t have children or any family member to take care of them, like the old woman from Badagry who was accused of being a witch. She was brought here in a dire state. Some of them are brought here by family members who initially visit, but then abandon them here after a while. Occasionally concerned individuals, churches and charity organisations also visit,” explained a woman who identified herself as Josephine and who has been paying regular visits to the home for the last three years.

She described the old people in the home as ‘lucky’ because there were many of them outside, neglected, mostly ill, and begging on the streets to survive.  “I first knew about this place through my father who used to attend this church. After my retirement, I decided to come here regularly to visit them and keep them company and if there is anything I can do for them, I do,” she said.

She continued: “They just need people to show interest in them and take care of them. They get free meals here, medical treatment and a physiotherapist attends to them. But the home is cash strapped, it is run on charity, so whatever anybody can do to assist them, they should. It is the obligation of children to take good care of their parents, they need to be loved.”

Once neglected, but still old and frail, Christiana has lived thousands of miles away from home for the last three years. When she was told our correspondent would like an interview with her, she smiled, with a knowing that was as old as her 70 plus years, and politely declined.

“I don’t want no tears,” she said with that obvious Liberian-American accent. She must have told the story of her recent past many times, and didn’t want to relive the pain again.

On enquiry, our correspondent found out that she was a Liberian refugee who fled the country’s devastating 14-year civil war some years ago. She went to another West African country before she finally reached Nigeria.

“She doesn’t even know if her husband or children survived the war, or where her family or relatives are, as she has lost contact with them since then. A Good Samaritan brought her here,” Josephine explained.

She cited another example of an elderly man who died after (medical) complications. She said, “While he was in the home, nobody came to visit him, but when he died, this place was full. So we need to get our priorities right. It’s not when someone dies that we should bring out money and aso ebi to celebrate him or her. It is wrong and that is very common in the country. We should also appreciate our old people while they are still alive.”

“Are you going to leave just now? …No, I want you to stay,” Christiana told Josephine, who had been keeping her company for over an hour, as she dragged Josephine close to whisper into her ears. “I don’t want you to hear what I want to tell her,” she told our correspondent, with a playful, almost childlike, twinkle in her eyes.

“It takes time for them to accept you, since they don’t know you from Adam. But after some time, they become very warm to you, and they are very humourous. They can tell you all about their lives, mostly true and sometimes funny and too good to be true,” Josephine explained later, laughing as she told our correspondent about the numerous funny stories her ‘old’ friends tell her. “One told me that the son of the Queen of England got married to a Yoruba woman and the queen was dressed in Yoruba cultural attire for the occasion. With such stories, you just have to pretend to believe them or you are in for a long argument,” she said, laughing, adding that, “They just need to be loved.”

Such care and affection shown to them by strangers like Josephine and people in the home, have made the likes of Pa Joshua, Mama Celina, Christiana and others like them find a new lease of life in the winter of their lives.

When our correspondent visited a day earlier, two women came to the home to make enquiries about any space to bring their elderly mother to the home. There was no space, they were told, unless someone died. Regina Mundi Home for the elderly is run by the Regina Mundi Catholic Church and the funding is mostly from charity donations.

Later, one of the women, who asked to be addressed as Kemi, told our correspondent that she wanted her mother to stay in the home because there was no one at home to take good care of her. “All my children are grown up and at school, while I am very busy with work, just like my husband. I have had different housemaids who do not stay for more than two months and most of them neglected her,” she said, emphasising that she was not ‘abandoning’ her aged mother, who was in her seventies, by deciding to bring her to the home. “I would have loved her to continue living with me, but I’m a very busy person and I want her to be in a place where she can be properly taken care of and also have good company every time. And there is no one around in my home to ensure this,” she told SUNDAY PUNCH.

“Ah, it’s not easy to take care of old people,” the other woman interjected. “In fact, they are like babies. And you have to take care of them like that and be patient with them,” she noted.

Despite the lack of appropriate facilities for the aged in Nigeria, with only an estimated 40 old people’s homes in the country, the number of ageing people is growing.

According to the 2008 Draft National Policy on Ageing, the number of people above 60 is said to be increasing in the country. From an estimated 5.8 million in 2005, it has been projected to rise to 16 million by 2030 and 47 million in 2060.

A few days earlier, when SUNDAY PUNCH visited the old people’s home at Yaba, Mrs. Olaore, who said she was in charge of the home, demanded an approval letter before she could grant any interview or access into the home.

Our correspondent gathered that there were not more than 40 persons accommodated there, while there are plans to renovate some of the structures to increase the number. Some of the people resident in the homes are destitute whose upkeep is the responsibility of the state government. While those who have family members and can afford it are required to pay between N30,000 and N50,000 monthly per accommodation and upkeep.

SUNDAY PUNCH  also gathered that the management of the home is forced to decline several requests weekly from people who want to bring their old relatives to the home, because it does not have enough space and facilities to cater for the extra population. “The facilities are overstretched and most of them are at breaking points; the standard is far from ideal, but they are trying,” said a source, who did not want to be named, but had visited the place before.

There are certain criteria to be met and approval is also required to register any old person in the home and he/she must not be brought from outside Lagos State.

The state recently built a home to cater for retired civil servants at Ibeju-Lekki.

Mrs. Olaore directed our correspondent to the public relations officer of the Ministry of Youth and Social Development, Alausa, Mrs. Oshodi-Eko. SUNDAY PUNCH made several attempts to reach her but she did not respond to repeated phone calls and text messages sent to her phone at the time of this report.

Due to cultural beliefs and lack of awareness of the functions of an old people’s home, many Nigerians still frown at it. This may be the reason why some of them choose to operate without much publicity.

A retired medical doctor, Dr. Kofo Odusote, who runs Winiseph Care Home, a day care and short-stay residential  for the elderly at Omole, Lagos, said this much. “I’m sorry, it would not be possible for you to talk with any of the old people here. Being a private organisation, I need the go ahead from their children and the three I suggested refused,” she said.

Established three years ago, the home has made no profit, said Odusote. “I’m doing this because of my passion for the elderly and my training,” she said, adding that the major challenges in running such homes included the regular costs of running a business in Nigeria and in getting trained and skilled caregivers.

“I use auxiliary nurses and we have trained people on the job. You need to have the patience of Job in caring for the elderly. They are like babies. And some of them have diseases common to old age, such as dementia, arthritis, and diabetes, we have special care for these ones, including those recovering from stroke,” she explained, she added that the home also has graduate social workers, physiotherapists, nutritionists and a consultant family physician on its team.

According to Mrs. Blessing Nsa-Omisesan, a social worker with some experience in the UK, there is also a lack of social planning for old people in Nigeria. She also runs Gims Health Care Initiatives, an independent private body that takes care of old people and also offers services and facilities to them.

“We are having more old people in the 60-80 years bracket living as pensioners. But there are no other activities organised to fill in their time. This in itself throws them into the deep end of the ocean which they cannot cope with. That has a triggering effect on so many other things.

“The social structure in Nigeria does not give old people anywhere to go or anything to develop themselves. My slogan is that old age is fun. The elderly can be utilised in various areas of work. We are talking of education standard going down in Nigeria, a lot of the elderly teachers can be ploughed back into the schools. In the UK, a lot of retired elderly teachers are being recruited back and recalled because of their impact on the economy during their time in terms of high standard of work which is lacking everywhere in the world now,” she said, noting that old people should be provided social services such as transport and medical care for free or at subsidised rates.

Nsa-Omisesan also noted that state governments and local governments need to make provisions and build more homes and day care or relaxation centres for the elderly across the country. “The private sector and corporate organisations should also be involved. People can drop off their parents at old people’s home when they need to go somewhere. Nigerians are living Western lives now, whether we like it or not, and this doesn’t allow us to give our parents 100 per cent attention. And if our parents are living longer, what is the alternative? Eventually, we will all grow old,” she said.

Indeed, no one will remain forever young.

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