The new age dilemma of caring for ageing parents
What you need to know:
- But changing family values and migration into cities has meant many Kenyans live away from their parents, making it harder for them to fulfill that traditional role of caring for them. This has given rise to retirement homes and assisted living centres which are common in the West.
- For some elderly citizens, however, the choice to move into a retirement home is cause by wrangles among children. In once such case, a media personality recently checked into one facility after his children’s incessant fights over his property took a toll on his health.
- In Nairobi alone, according to the county government, the number of retirement and assisted living facilities has risen to about 30 from less than 10 a decade ago. At least four of them are high-end, targeting the rich. Tree Lane Foundation, another such facility, is coming up in Karen.
“Will it be home or nyumba ya wazee for me?” asked Prof Austin Bukenya in a recent Saturday Nation column as he was turning 72, stirring a lively online debate. Some of those who commented could not understand why the renowned Ugandan scholar, poet, playwright and novelist, with over four decades of experience, would consider living in a retirement home instead of with his family.
It is the same question Mrs Selina Juma asked herself when she realised her days would be lonely when her only daughter wanted to leave for the US where she had found a job six years ago.
“I did not want to put a lot of burden on my relatives and make them worry about me all the time,” she says.
She acknowledges that there was the option of employing someone to look after her at home “but it would still have been lonely”.
Last Thursday evening, Mrs Juma, 70, was engaged in friendly banter over some puzzle games with her agemates when Lifestyle visited Thogoto Home for the Elderly in Kikuyu, miles away from her home in Ngong. Nothing on her face shows that she misses her home and, even though her social status is different from that of her counterparts — who are mostly from poor backgrounds with some having been abandoned by their relatives — the home’s administrators say she has adjusted well.
The home was built in 1965 by the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) to cater for the destitute and homeless elderly members of society. In recent years, however, the home has come under pressure from those who have families like Mrs Juma but still want to be admitted.
“The list is too long but there is nothing we can do,” says Mary Njeri, the treasurer of the Woman’s Guild at PCEA, whose members volunteer to run the home.
She adds: “It is not our wish to refuse admitting them but there is simply no space to take in even those who are very desperate if you keep in mind that it is members of the Guild who contribute their own money in order to run the home.”
This situation is a common and growing problem as more and more people live into their seventies due to improved healthcare services.
And with the country urbanising fast, the young population which is supposed to look after the elderly in rural areas is leaving in droves in search of opportunities in cities and towns, leaving the elderly with no one to look after them.
Coupled with the pressure of working and taking care of their own families, more children find taking their ageing parents and relatives to retirement homes as the best option.
For some elderly citizens, however, the choice to move into a retirement home is cause by wrangles among children. In once such case, a media personality recently checked into one facility after his children’s incessant fights over his property took a toll on his health. It took the intervention of one of his children who resides abroad who came back home and recommended that he moves from his house to a retirement home.
According to official population figures, Kenya has about 1.5 million people aged over 60. This number is expected to reach 2.5 million people in the next 10 years. A study released last year by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington placed Kenya’s life expectancy at 63 for men and 68 for women, up from 41 and 43 years at independence.
“That increase is thanks to improved quality of life and decline in deaths caused by HIV, malaria, infectious diseases, and nutrition deficiencies,” said the report.
So is Kenya increasingly going the direction of the West where many families prefer to place their elderly relatives in care homes?
Inquiries by Lifestyle in recent weeks indicate a rise in the number of retirement homes across the country to cater for the growing number of senior citizens who prefer to spend their sunset years in these facilities rather than stay home alone.
In Nairobi alone, according to the county government, the number of retirement and assisted living facilities has risen to about 30 from less than 10 a decade ago. At least four of them are high-end, targeting the rich. Tree Lane Foundation, another such facility, is coming up in Karen.
Located at the plush Rosslyn Estate in Nairobi, Fairseat Retirement Home caters for 30 residents, all above the age of 70. Its occupants, who include foreigners, live in their own cottages spread across the five-acre property.
Each cottage, according to the financial ability of its occupant, has its own sitting room, verandah, bedrooms, kitchens and access to modern utilities like Wi-Fi. And although it has full-time medical personnel available, the home caters for those who do not require full-time medical attention.
To kill boredom, the home organises common activities for its residents like scrabble, bingo, physical exercises and even a weekly maths workshop.
A worker, who did not want to be named, gave us insights into life at the home.
“I can tell you for a fact that no poor person lives here,” he says.
“It costs upwards of Sh150,000 to live here but the demand is too high. The only way we can admit a new person is if someone dies and, even then, selecting who to admit itis not an easy thing,” says the worker. According to the home’s website, they currently have over 200 couples or individuals on their waiting list.
The regular homes that are mostly run by hospitals and nursing homes charge between Sh15,000 and Sh60,000 per month for those who can afford.
In Mombasa, Kilulu Retirement Home, which has been in operation for the last 18 years, has seen the number of those seeking to be admitted grow. Initially, the facility catered for elderly people whose families had moved abroad or were too distant to take care of their needs.
Beverly Herd, a founding member of the home, explained the reasoning behind it.
“If a couple lives alone and neither is able to get out and shop, it can be difficult for them and their relatives who perhaps do not live in this country or are too far away to help on a regular basis,” she says.
With various designs of cottages, apartments and rooms for accommodation, people are allowed to furnish their rooms to make residents feel more “at home”.
In the traditional society, older people were highly regarded because of the important roles they played by helping to integrate the society, preserve its cultural values, transmit knowledge and skills, settle disputes and educate the young.
For this reason, taking an elderly person to an old people’s home was unthinkable and considered un-African.
The few such homes that existed were run by religious or charity organisations and catered for those who had been abandoned by their families.
The decision by Maurice Cardinal Otunga in 1997 to move to a home for the elderly run by the Sisters of the Poor has been a talking point about his humility years after he died.
But, as the society modernises, the traditional role that children have of taking care of their ageing parents is changing.
“It is a fact that people are living longer and longer and, as they do, their physical, social and psychological special needs increase,” wrote Prof Bukenya in his column on February 20.
He added: “Much as families might want to keep us with them, their ability to look after us is decidedly limited. Attending to the hygiene requirements of the elderly, for example, like bathing and toilet visits, can be quite challenging.”
According to cultural experts, changes in the structure of the society have left older people with challenges which were not previously experienced. Cultural analyst Joyce Nyairo believes there is nothing un-African about taking the elderly to retirement homes.
“The definition of being African is never permanent. Sometimes we forget that culture is supposed to serve people and not the other way round,” she says.
The scholar asks: “It is like wearing suits, would you say it is un-African?”
Dr Nyairo, who has written numerous essays on traditional communities in Kenya, says because of globalisation, a lot of notions about what is right or wrong according to African societies will disappear with time and how we treat the elderly is one of them.
“As time goes by, we will find ourselves doing things because they work for us economically, because rules in the African societies are not cast in stone,” she says.
But Esther Wangari, a social worker at Thogoto Home for the Elderly, disputes this, saying that taking an elderly member of the family to a home amounts to abandoning them.
“Your parents took full care of you when you were young and you were many in the family. How comes when it is your turn to take care of just one person, you rush to take them to a retirement home in the disguise that you are very busy?” she asks.
“Visiting them once in a while is not enough,” she says.
Mr Samwel Mwaura, who lives at the home, however, says it is a better option than being bored at home.
“Here you get a chance to socialise with a lot of people who are of your age. There are a lot of things to talk about all the time,” he says.
There are, however, families that abandon their elderly members once they take them to retirement homes.
At the Thogoto Home, for example, the family members of three residents who died recently did not show any concern when they were informed of their deaths and never showed up for their funerals. The three were buried in a public cemetery and the home’s administrators were the only people in attendance.
But, as people like Prof Bukenya ponder whether he will spend his sunset years at home with his family or at a home for the elderly, it appears the debate will continue on the best way to handle this important segment of the population at a time of rapid changes in Kenya.
Elderly people aged 65 and above who are needy and not pensionable are entitled to a monthly stipend of Sh2,000 from the Government under the Cash Transfer Fund for the Elderly.
The fund was introduced in 2012 as part of the government’s Sh3 billion annual social protection programme.
Nursing home is big business
As Kenya grapples with the surge of an ageing population, retirement homes are a huge business and a major employer in developed countries with most governments having strict social protection policies and laws.
In 2014 China introduced a law that requires all children with parents older than 60 to visit them frequently and ensure that ther social, financial and spiritual needs are met. The law says children cannot give up their inheritance rights in attempt to evade their duty to take care of their parents and forces them to pay them a monthly allowance.
The law which many termed as infringing when it was introduced was tested in October last year when a 77-year-old woman sued her daughter for neglecting her. The court ruled that her daughter must visit her not less than twice a month and at the same time provide financial support.
Japan, Germany and Italy lead in the list of countries with the oldest populations according to the UN with median ages of 45, 44 and 40 respectively. Kenya in comparison has a median age of just 19 which is among the youngest in the world.
Because of this huge population of elderly people, competition to attract them has led to a rise in luxury retirement communities which American financial magazine- Forbes describes as “luxury hotels and country clubs rolled into one.” “Rather than watching TV in a common room or playing bingo twice a week, retirees can instead look forward to private homes in gated communities, daily rounds of golf, dinner parties, health spas and boat excursions, to name a few, all surrounded by opulent and luxurious environments,” said the magazine in its annual listing of the most luxurious retirement homes last year.
Last year it named the Sun City Anthem in Nevada as the most luxurious. The same home was also given similar recognition by 55places.com in 2011. The home which can host 12,5000 people has two golf courses, indoor and outdoor pools, a dance studio, spas, five tennis courts, restaurants, a mall and two clubhouses. Rents range from $180,000 (Sh18 million) to $900,000 (Sh90 million) a year.