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People whose mission is to help others age gracefully

October 1 was declared the International Day for Older Persons in 1991 with the aim of focusing on unique problems that senior citizens encounter

Peter Ngila @peterngilanjeri

In 1991, the United Nations General Assembly designated October 1 the International Day for Older Persons.

With this year’s theme being, ‘Celebrating Older Human Rights Champions,’ here are inspiring stories of champions of the interests of the aged.    

Jane Nyawira, 69, a resident of Kahawa West, began campaigning for the provision of older persons with assistive devices in 2004.

“I have been battling polio since I was eight months. I had been using two elbow crutches until 2004 when my arms just gave up and I became confined to a wheelchair,” says Nyawira.

According to Medicine Net, an assistive device is any device that is designed, made, or adapted to assist a person to perform a particular task.

Nyawira realised that older persons (aged 60 and above) are more likely to need assistive devices like wheelchairs and crutches.

According to the 2009 national census, Kenya is estimated to have about 2.9 million people aged over 65. With the world currently having 700 million people aged 60 and above, it’s predicted that by 2050 this figure will have risen to two billion – representing over 20 per cent of the world’s population.

These figures have elicited global attention and various initiatives being established to address the problems that will arise, including The Vienna Plan of Action on Ageing (adopted in 1982), the United Nations Principles for Older Persons (adopted in 1991), and the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (adopted in 2002).   

“Older persons should have their own councils like the National Council of People Living with Disabilities and assistive devices in hospitals,” Nyawira recommends, citing stigma and rejection by relatives. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in many low-income and middle-income countries, only 5-15 per cent of people who require assistive devices have access to them.

Rose Wairimu, 46, Jane’s sister and caregiver, cites attitude as the biggest quality of a caregiver. Rose, who lost her job in 2008, says she has learnt how to be patient with both her sister and 88-year-old mother, with whom they live together. 

She says that before they got a sliding board which Nyawira uses to disembark from the wheelchair, she had to literary lift her into the car.

“We no longer employ house girls after two of them ran away and left my sister and my mother sleeping,” says the mother of two.

Wairimu says for her sister to sit on the sofa, there has to be someone to support the table, which Nyawira holds onto as she gets from her wooden seat-like wheeled assistive device, and shifts her body onto the sofa.

Although Jane used to do many things on her own, Wairimu says old age and polio have weakened her bones, and so Wairimu has to help her sister bath. At the washroom, two metallic assistive devices are fixed on either side of the wall, which helps Jane get up from the toilet seat after relieving herself, and back onto the wheelchair. 

“My sister and mother relieve themselves in the plastic combo toilet at night, and in the morning, I empty it. I don’t mind the toilet, because it’s easier to handle than carrying someone to the toilet,” Wairimu says.

She is urging the government to help the elderly access medication. To earn money,  Wairimu and her sister do some beadwork. They also pool their resources to buy medication.

“We as older persons need a universal health care,” Nyawira says. Every month Wairimu contributes Sh1,000 to NHIF. Rose recommends free treatment for the disabled and elderly persons.

“Before and during my primary and secondary schooling days, I had to walk on my fours and later use home-made assistive devices like a pole, and a structure made of two poles on the sides and another one in the middle. My mother would sometimes carry me on her back,”  Nyawira recalls.    

Douglas Lackey, 76, a former health advisor at HelpAge International, and a prostate cancer survivor, has started an older person’s cancer support group, which is part of the paediatric care unit at Nanyuki Referral Hospital. 

Last Saturday, Lackey managed to get the Rotary Club of Nanyuki to collaborate with the Laikipia County government and other partners to organise the International Older Persons Day celebration in Nanyuki. The celebration was attended by 200 older people from Laikipia county.

Esther Wamera, 81, started championing the rights older persons six years ago after her husband died in the queue at the Kenyatta National Hospital.

“As an older person, I want to go straight to a geriatrician – a doctor trained to specifically take care of older persons, not just any other doctor,” Esther says.

Wamera, who has been staying at the Nairobi county’s Huruma Flats since 1978, says that older persons should be provided with free medical check-ups, diagnosis, and drugs. She also recommends separate wards for older persons.

Wamera, who is the Deputy Chairperson of National Association for Older Persons, has represented Kenya in older persons advocacy training and conferences in New York and Geneva. She is a trained teacher and worked as a banker for 27 years. Her only child, Linnet died in 1999. 

Educated in Israel and England, Wamera believes older persons should live a dignified life by choice. Her efforts led to the establishment of a pilot institution for older persons in Murang’a county by the government two months ago. 

Nyawira, Lackey and Wamera have homes, but there are older persons who are not as privileged. An example is Ndirangu, 56, who is orphaned and mentally retarded. He lives at the Thogoto Home for the Aged in Kikuyu. Jane Gaturu who is a social worker and manager at the home, says that they take care of the less fortunate older persons.    

“We help older persons for free to live dignified lives by providing them with food, shelter and quality medication at Kikuyu Hospital,” says Gaturu.

The home currently hosts 33 old persons who are accommodated in six dormitories – three for men and three for women.

Gaturu says most of the older persons end up at the home because of poverty, and rejection by their families. The centre has employed nine workers to take care of the older persons.   

A new dormitory was recently built and has received donations of 44 beds, mattresses, blankets and bedsheets. Gaturu says that when a resident of the home dies, most are buried, with the consent of their families, in a cemetery donated to the church. 

The home was established in 1967 by the then South Kiambu Woman’s Guild Presbyterial Council. In 1984, with the help of HelpAge Kenya and Lions Club, modern dormitories were built.

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