To neglect elderly people is to neglect our heritage
- Refiloe Nt’sekhe
- 03 Oct 2017 (South Africa)
I never met my grandfathers – both passed on before I was born – but I knew both my grandmothers. My maternal grandmother died in 1983 when I was just six years old but to this day I remember visiting her and sitting on the floor with my cousins listening to her tell African fairy tales.
Sometimes the stories were about animals who talked, like The Lion and the Hare, and sometimes they were about people (Tselane le Dimo). She didn’t have a book but just told these stories as they were passed to her by her parents and grandparents, and she passed them on to us, her grandchildren.
What are we passing on to our children? The importance of some of these stories was that they were based on real life events and this has helped us preserve our history. As an adult, I sourced books that contained these stories because as beautiful as Beauty and the Beast is, I wanted my children to own and have stories from their ancestors. Thanks to the discovery of two editions of such stories, written in Sesotho, I can now preserve my history and heritage and pass it down to my children and, one day, my grandchildren.
I got to really know my paternal grandmother much later in life. When she was old and could no longer look after herself and we couldn’t find someone to care for her in her own home, she came to live with us (in my parents’ house).
As a child, I did not know of facilities such as old age homes because in my culture, we take care of our parents. When our parents get old, we bring them into our homes and live with them or one of the relatives goes to live with the person. As my grandmother got older, she came to live with us. We lived in a three-bedroom house and being the only girl I had to share the bedroom with my grandmother. Initially, I hated it because I was young and didn’t understand what an honour it was to know that I had cared for my grand-mother. She was old and wore adult nappies – yes, from time to time, she had an accident. I got to understand what is meant by “when you grow old, you become like a baby”.
She had Alzheimer’s, so she didn’t really know where she was. Apparently, I look like my father’s older sister when she was my age and my grandmother called me by her name. She referred to my father, her son, as “who is this old man?”. As I matured, I just learnt to accept this. She would sit underneath a tree for hours reading her Bible or any reading material she could lay her hands on – even a school textbook. She would call me to join her so that we could sing hymns or to read Bible verses to me. When she passed on, I realised what a wonderful gift I had received of having the opportunity to care for my grandmother.
My grandparents were foremost in my mind this past weekend when we marked International Day of Older Persons on 1 October. I believe it is important that we treasure older people. They are a source of wisdom and need to be cared for and loved. They deserve to live their last days in dignity. Working in the portfolio of Social Development in the Gauteng Provincial Legislature, I am often horrified by some of the stories that I hear of how older people are treated.
There are some lovely stories, but truth be told those seem to be too few – in an earlier piece, I relayed a beautiful and moving story of a young man who lived with his grandmother who has an amputated leg and a deformed leg. This young man lived with her in an RDP house in Tembisa. Since he was caring for his grandmother, he could not look for a job. He bathed her, cooked for her and did everything for her. If he needed to go to the shops, he calculated his time so that he was not away for more than two hours. They lived on a minimal income so he augmented it by washing cars in the neighbourhood – again, he was not too far and came home often to ensure that his grandmother was taken care of. Since the story was published, she has died. Although it ends in death, this to me was a beautiful story of love, care and selflessness.
Other stories are not as beautiful – in some cases, we find grandsons living with their grandmothers, raping the old women and taking their grant money for their own use, often drugs. These are horror stories. Many families have also decided to put their grandparents in old age homes – sometimes, they never visit until they go to collect the corpse for burial. Old people are mistreated in the homes where they are supposed to be cared for. Government uses grants to assist with paying for boarding and lodging – the older people receive shoddy service.
Far more work needs to be done to identify homes that exist but do not get registered because such homes are risky. Some older persons need to be put in frail care so one wonders what kind of care they are getting in homes that are not registered. When older persons are abused in such facilities or there are problems, who is accountable? Families need to check that the homes where they put their grandparents are registered. By ensuring that they are registered, families minimise the risk to the elderly. When they go through the registration process, the department must ensure compliance.
There are other older people who need to be assisted: those who have lost their children and are left to look after their grandchildren – having to take on the role of being parents again. Sometimes a child care grant and pension is the only income in the home. Although many of the stories are sad, there are others that are worse: due to the backlog of housing, these older people still live in informal settlements with poor access to basic services; no access to electricity, shared outside toilets, and a communal water tap.
It’s sad that a country would even need to have an Older Persons Act to ensure that older people are taken care of properly. Such an act also allows for institutions to be held accountable but morality needs to kick in. Older people are vulnerable and need to be treated with care and dignity. DM
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