Zimbabwe’s elderly often returned to homes amid pandemic | Economic news

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By FARAI MUTSAKA, Associated Press

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Banana bread was served at a recent birthday party at the Melfort Elderly Home, where a group of residents put together a raucous happy birthday tune.

Just a week after arriving at the facility, Rodrick Bhatare, in his 40s, said he felt a bittersweet moment during the celebration of another 103-year-old resident.

“I haven’t been this happy for a very long time,” he said. “I just wish I could have done it with my family.” Hit hard by the pandemic, his family could no longer support him, he said.

The economic devastation of COVID-19 is forcing some families in Zimbabwe to abandon the age-old tradition of caring for the elderly.

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Some roam the streets. The lucky ones find themselves in institutions for the elderly – once widely regarded by many Zimbabweans as “non-African” and against the social bonds that have united extended families for generations.

Rarely mentioned, the elderly are “silent victims” of the pandemic, said Priscilla Gavi, executive director of HelpAge Zimbabwe.

“Elderly parents or loved ones have become an added strain in this pandemic, so while it goes against our culture, many people see nursing homes as the only option,” Gavi said.

Zimbabwe’s nursing homes have seen a 60% increase in admissions since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March 2020, and most of the country’s more than 170 facilities for the elderly are full, she said. declared.

COVID-19 has increased the risk of abuse and neglect of older people in Africa and around the world, according to a report by HelpAge International.

In addition to being one of the groups most at risk for serious illness and death from COVID-19, older people are chronically neglected in response and recovery efforts, especially in low-income countries, according to the “Bearing the Brunt” report.

For the elderly in care institutions, the experience is both a saving grace and a source of anguish.

Bhatare said that after retiring from career mining work about two decades ago, “everything was fine” as he remained alternately with his two daughters and other relatives.

He was living with a married niece and four of his children when COVID-19 hit and their income from selling goods on the streets plummeted. Food in the house became scarce, tensions increased and in order to survive, Bhatare began to search the streets for meals until worried neighbors alerted HelpAge, who found him a place in Melfort’s house, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Harare, the capital.

“My daughters are married but they also have difficulties. I had become a constraint for everyone, ”he said.

Zimbabwe’s economy was already battered before the pandemic and today more than 80% of urban households struggle to buy basic foodstuffs, while large numbers of rural families also go hungry, according to the World Food Program.

People aged 70 and over make up less than 3% of Zimbabwe’s population of around 15 million and have often become the victims of belt tightening.

“They don’t generate any income in an environment where even young children work to contribute to household income. The old people become the sacrificial lambs. COVID-19 has really knocked them down, ”said Phillip Pasirayi, sociologist and director of the Center for Community Development in Zimbabwe.

Feeling “abandoned” by their families can come as a shock to many older people in care facilities, he said.

“It doesn’t really match what we’re used to as Africans. You want to spend your last days surrounded by your family. It’s tradition, ”Pasirayi said.

“When they are forced to go to nursing homes, many fall into depression, dementia … they are confused that their children or loved ones have abandoned them,” said Daniel Francis, the administrator of the nursing home. by Melfort.

Some families are using tricks to remove their older parents, he said.

“With the pandemic, some people are taking an elderly relative to a faraway place. They buy them a drink in the stores, tell them “We’re coming back”, and they leave for good. The elderly are thrown out and forgotten, ”said Francis. The police take these people to social assistance.

“The welfare department doesn’t have a house so they come to us,” said Francis, whose facility has a capacity of 40 residents. But during the pandemic, he limits the number to 22 to allow more physical distance between residents.

Care homes that do not charge their residents and are funded by charities and churches, are under pressure.

Melfort’s house would struggle to regain full capacity, he said, as his donations fell more than 60% during the pandemic, he said.

Times are even tougher at the Society for Destitute Aged nursing home in Highfield Township in Harare. Princess Diana opened an accommodation wing with great fanfare in 1993. But today the paint is peeling off the walls, the ceilings are crumbling, and bees have invaded the 200-liter (53-gallon) water heater. out of order.

The house does not have a vehicle, so when a resident needs medical attention, manager Emilia Mukaratirwa has to risk crowded public taxis or, when money allows, hire a small car to transport a retiree to the home. hospital.

“The whole place needs a makeover, but right now receiving bread is like Christmas. This is why we desperately need help, ”Mukaratirwa said.

Despite the disappointment of not being with his family, Bhatare from Melfort’s nursing home adjusts to his new reality.

“These foreigners have become my family, they treat me well,” he said. “I still love my real family but I don’t want to be a burden on them.”

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