Where Are the Friends of the Aged?

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Our old people need our love and understanding. Without it, they are often left alone and destitute. New Era visited some of the old-age homes in Gobabis to see how the elderly live. By Catherine Sasman GOBABIS “I read in a magazine once that if you do not feel any pain after the age of 80, then you are dead. But I have no pain.” The only pain she has complained about recently was a troublesome arm when she woke up one morning. “I could not move the arm. The doctors told me later the muscle got torn away from the bone. But the Lord has healed me. The arm has completely healed without any medical care. I never got sick as a young woman. And now I am still very active.” Kitty Nel (soon to be 89) sits alone in her quiet one-bedroom apartment at the Elim Old Age Home. The wireless radio on the small kitchen table with one chair pushed under it is quiet. There are no sounds coming from the corridors of the building. The only sounds streaming through her small windows are those of people walking by the adjacent gravel road, and the far-off droning of vehicles. Her small lounge-cum-dining room is scantily decorated with two simple sofas, and a reclining chair facing the television cabinet. Two landscape portraits hang from the yellowish walls. Cups and plates are neatly stashed on the small kitchen shelves. “The heart is so young and then one gets so old,” she says with a smile. The years have passed by too quickly for her. Nel has been living in the old-age home for the last 15 years. Before that, she lived with her son on a farm in the Omaheke region for six years after her husband passed away. “I did not feel to stay on with my children, so I decided to move here. My children were not very happy with my decision, but I did not want to become an imposition to them, and I thought it would be better if I could be closer to medical care. And I am thankful to be able to still live here. I would not be in a position to afford a place in town.” But she never gets tired. On Saturday afternoons her friends in the old-age home come to visit her in her apartment, where they sometimes flick through her DsTV bouquet of channels on the colour television her children bought her. Babie Weber (74) moved in when her husband died in 1995. “Since then I have always lived on my own,” she says from her chair at the window where she sits and knits. She is one of a few people who have a car at the old-age home, but is happy to share it with others to go into town for shopping, or to take someone to the hospital at night when they fall ill. “Money is not much, but one learns to cope,” says Weber, who had been farming with her husband in the Leonardville area. The blue-grey building served as a girls’ high school until 1960. It has wide, open corridors with apartments adjusted to serve as small apartments for the old people who have since moved in. But it has retained the distinct school hostel character from the outside. The only indication that it is now an old-age home is a quaint little garden on the outside, and grey-haired tenants parking their cars in parking lots and garages on the premises. A laundry room was installed where the elderly do their washing, and the hall is used for special events. A recent event was a memorial service for someone who has lived at the old-age home. “It is easier to have the memorial services here,” says Piet Kotze (nearing 80), the caretaker of the old-age home. “We have had two people who have died here.” On other occasions, the Autumn Leaves Club (Herfsblare) holds their meetings. The club, at N$10 per year, is open to anyone older than 60. It hosts a meeting every two months, and arranges three outings for the elderly per year. “We would often go to Swakopmund, Waterberg or Etosha, but as people get older the outings get shorter. People are not in the mood to go out for longer anymore; they tire easily.” Only the self-supporting elderly can live at the Elim Old Age Home. This means that only those who can still take care of themselves, and cook and clean for themselves, can live there. Should they become incapable of doing that, they have to move elsewhere. Kotze lives on the ground floor of the blue-grey school building with his wife, Christina (79) – “Everybody just calls her Rooikop,” says Kotze. Twenty-four people live in the complex, five of whom are men who are still lucky to have their partners living with them. Most women in the complex have already lost their spouses and live alone. The Kotzes moved into the old-age home 19 years ago – or 20 years, as Rooikop corrects her husband. “We are living well; we are happy,” says Kotze, who had been waiting for his wife before he would take his medication standing on the sideboard. Kotze started out working in the town as a magistrate in 1947. He later gave up his position to start a small gift shop with his family. “In those years business went very well,” he reminisces. In his heyday he was the town’s mayor for 10 consecutive years. He also served as an elder in the Dutch Reformed Church. But, after a minor stroke, he gave it all up and the family moved to Swakopmund where they rented a railway house for some time. “We sold everything, and made enough money.” The family had invested some money with Masterbond, but when that collapsed in 1991, they were left in a serious financial pickle. When one of their daughters got married and moved back to Gobabis, Kotze and Rooikop returned to the town and settled in the old-age home. “Thank the Lord we can still survive,” says Kotze. “Initially we did not want to be here, but at least we had a place to stay.” The elderly at Elim pay basic water and electricity – “at reduced rates” – and four percent of their basic pension of N$370, which is the average pension allowance from the State. “And some of us were able to save up some money,” says Rooikop, who returned from her rounds of the premises. Early at night, the outside gate gets chained, and the outside doors to the corridors are tightly shut. There are no security services. The Ministry of Works, Transport and Communication told the residents that they should put in their own alarm systems – should they want that luxury. “I feel safe here, ” says Nel. “In earlier years, I had a pistol with me, but I gave that away because there is no reason to have one.” But Weber complains: “Things are deteriorating at the centre. The paint peels off, and the geysers run over; the ceilings have big, brown spots. It would have been nice to have showers instead of baths. We struggle to get out of our baths.” The tenants themselves often do renovations. But money is too tight to mention these days, says Nel. “In the old days, we were able to buy a cow and calf for N$200. Now you cannot compare prices.” Jan Maritz, manager at the more up-market Huis Deon Louw (Deon Louw House) down the street from Elim, says people are not often aware of the financial precariousness the elderly find themselves in. “After 20 years of retirement, old people cannot rely on their savings anymore because they devalue by at least 22 percent every four or five years. Should a person live longer than 15 years after 65, the financial predicament becomes more pronounced. This theoretically means that by the age of 85 people just simply do not have any more money. But who sees this problem?” The privately-run Huis Deon Louw charges N$2 115 per month for self-supporting elderly people and N$3 370 per month for those living in the intensive care unit. “The children of the elderly should look after their parents, but few of them do. Many of them are also approaching their own retirement age and must look after themselves,” says Susan Cruywagen, a nurse at the establishment. But, she contends, it is often best for the elderly to live in an old-age home. “They develop very special needs. An old person can be right as rain one day and the next day become deadly ill. Children often do not have much empathy – or time – to deal with these.” And the widely held-notion that old people find themselves in old-age homes, is erroneous, says Maritz. “Here they find their peers; they can tell a story over and over again without anyone becoming irritable. Often old people become lonely at their children’s homes because they cannot really participate in the activities of a busy household. They often want their privacy and quiet.” Which is not something the five elderly people at the Epako Old Age Home get much of. James Queenies (72) and his wife Christophine (60) live in a small two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and bathroom at Epako, which they rent at N$150 per room per month. Their four school-going orphaned grandchildren stay with them and have to sleep in the kitchen. And on the other side, the Gobabis Municipality is renting out empty apartments to young families. “Children are dumped with their grandparents,” said Tinana Matjila, Manager of Corporate Services at the Municipality. “We have tried to get the children out, but where would they go?” The situation of the Epako old people is precarious, admitted Matjila. “The old people should be everyone’s responsibility, but no one cares.” The N$150 the old people pay, goes for water and electricity and one meal per day, with a cup of coffee in the morning and afternoon. “It is hunger that will kill us,” says Queenies. “The children have to find their own food; but how long is the night before we get another plate of food?”