By Nneka Acholonu Egbuna
Many elderly persons in rural communities are not fully informed about the pandemic or how to protect themselves from it.
“I thought it was a curse from God to destroy everybody” – says one of the elderly rights holders of the project on curtailing elder abuse in 11 communities in Enugu State, being implemented by Dewdrop Foundation and Centre for Gender Economics Africa.
Considering the importance of mental health to the wellbeing of older persons, prior to the nationwide lockdown occasioned by the COVID 19 pandemic, we were engaging not less than 900 elders from 11 communities in Enugu State, whom we fondly call Seenagers (i.e. Senior Teenagers or persons aged 60 years and above), in social activities through safe spaces (Seenagers Associations) where they speak to issues of concern to them. The meetings also helped reintegrate the elders into their communities as valued members. This gave them dignity, hope, and confidence.
Among these elders are men and women who had survived various forms of abuse – physical, sexual, psychological and financial abuse in the hands of their family members, domestic workers, their caregivers, neighbours, strangers or friends to the family. Their monthly Seenagers’ meetings were opportunities for them to mingle with their mates and receive other health-related attention. Unfortunately, these meetings can no longer continue and many of the elders have expressed their sadness about this.
Suzanna, one of the Seenagers aged 75 years, who can no longer go out to socialize with her peers said, “I am not happy that the meetings cannot continue for the time being. I always looked forward to them because they gave us so much joy and we felt like human beings again – our voices were being heard and it gave us dignity because many young people of these days have no respect for the elders.”
Although social activities are among the best ways to stimulate the mental health of the elderly, doctors advise that contact with elderly persons be reduced during this COVID-19 pandemic period, as a way of preventing them from getting infected.
Some geriatric doctors have advised that the best way to maintain contact with the elderly is through technology. While this suggestion may suit a few educated populations of elders with internet access, the greater questions are ‘How can the health messages be passed on to illiterate or semi-literate aged men and women in the hard-to-reach communities and villages? How do they receive adequate care in these uncertain times?’ The villages are where we find the largest numbers of elderly persons. About 64 per cent of Nigeria’s population live in rural communities, and the people who have died from COVID-19 so far are mostly older people from 55 years and over (The Cable Nigeria).
By the second week of May 2020, data from the National Centre for Disease Control (NACA) on the ‘Current Breakdown on COVID-19 in Nigeria by Age and Gender and Deaths’, showed that at least 44 deaths were recorded across the country for persons aged 0-50 years whereas not less than 90 people had died among those aged 51 and above.
The coronavirus is the worst public health crisis to have hit the world in a century and older persons are more susceptible to the virus than any other age group. Medical experts have maintained that older adults are at significant risk because of many ailments commonly associated with ageing. WHO statistics show that 95 per cent of Covid19 deaths are among persons from 60 years and above and more than 50 per cent of deaths globally occur in persons 80 years and above.
Indeed, the older generation is an endangered species facing a threat to their existence if thorough measures are not taken to ensure their health and wellbeing are catered to in the foreseeable future. Elderly persons are among the most marginalised groups in Nigeria; yet, there is no law on comprehensive social welfare and security for them.
Across the world and in Nigeria, there has been a significant increase in domestic abuse while under lockdown. The elderly currently face the intersecting threat of domestic abuse and neglect as a result of the lockdown where they stay at home with their abusers.
The coronavirus is the silent killer that we cannot see. We are currently utilising innovative ways to sensitise elderly persons, and their caregivers, in Enugu State on safety and preventive measures.
However, we cannot achieve this alone. It is therefore important that all aid and assistance being provided in the rural and urban areas by development workers, caregivers, family members and the State or Federal Governments, should take into account the various needs of the elderly, who in most cases, are left out of development plans when crises erupt.
•Nneka Acholonu Egbuna is the Assistant Programme Coordinator at Dewdrop Foundation