In Nigeria, it is largely believed that any old person who can’t take care of themselves and is alone, is a witch or was probably a bad parent to their children. With that kind of prevailing perception in a society like Nigeria, it becomes a rather difficult reality for old people generally and more so for any organization or individual working to support old people in Nigeria.
Hope for the Old Foundation founded by Wunmi Cosmas in 2012 (but began active operations in 2014) is about redefining the experience of being old and correcting misconceptions and attitudes towards ageing and the elderly in a fast-paced society and era.
Old Age is a Reality for All
People say that old age is just a mindset, but it is more than just a mindset, it is a reality, and it sets in as soon as a person realises that the best part of them is behind them. Nigeria has the largest number of elderly people over 60 years of age, south of the Sahara, so it is indeed more than just a mindset for the country.
When we started the foundation at Iyana-Odo in Alimosho local government area in Lagos state, we had said we would cater to old people from 70 years and above, but we ended up having a lot of people between 60 – 70 years, some even below 60 years who insisted on being part of the foundation because they said they were old. This particularly made it difficult for me to even define at what age a person should be considered old – so ‘old’ is a very relative word to me.
Since the foundation started I have come to realise that the greatest problem of old age is lack of preparation for old age. When you don’t prepare for old age, when you consider that you’re still young, by the time you’re old it becomes difficult then to deal with the realities that it comes with. This is quite the experience of about 90% of the old people that we care for in the foundation. They did not adequately prepare for old age, it eventually dawned on them and now they’re having to fight the fight of their lives as they’ve come face-to-face with it. Some of these realities are sickness, poverty, abandonment, loneliness and frustration, and these are realities that no government can say it can solve all of them. So at the end of the day, every individual has the responsibility to prepare for their old age so that these realities will not become issues that they inevitably will have to deal with.
It is easy for one to imagine that poverty is the most dreadful reality an old person must cope with, but at the foundation we’ve realised that poverty only makes up for about 10% of the cases we have to deal with. What most of the old people we care for have to deal with mostly are destabilizing issues like loneliness, abandonment and sickness which come from neglecting their diet, exercise and healthy lifestyles while they were young, neglecting their need to invest for the future and believing that their children and society would naturally care for and support them when they grow old. Africans generally believe that their children ought to take care of them when they grow old and a lot of parents live their entire adult lives with that single hope that they will be cared for by their children, only for them to be disappointed.
These realities are what we have found to be true for most of our members in the foundation and these problems are generic, they are not just peculiar to the people at the foundation. I have travelled to Europe and it’s quite the same. The only difference is that some of these governments in those other countries have prioritized the need to cater for their old people, and they have made available relevant policies and even infrastructure and systems that support old age in their countries.
Hope For The Old
Before my mother died she called me one day to say she wants to move into a home for old people. When I asked her why she said she wants to be with people in her age group. She insisted and then I took her to a home for old people in Lagos and what we saw there shocked us. I really couldn’t believe how old the people there looked and there was just no hope on their faces, only memory and regret. They looked so sickly and sad. It immediately triggered something in me, at least the awareness that this is what is happening to old people in Nigeria. I took my mother back home that day because even she confessed that she was no longer interested in living in a home for old people anymore after what she saw.
So I began to visit some other homes for the old, I began to celebrate my birthday with them and I became friends with lots of them and my life and my activities began to revolve around old people generally. As if the universe was also responding to this new consciousness of mine, old people generally began to draw close to me at random places. Eventually it became difficult managing my visits to these old people’s homes where I had become friends with them and catering to some of their needs. It was then that Hope for the Old Foundation opened its doors to the old people we care for now at the centre here in Alimosho local government area in Lagos state.
We started the foundation and then 4 people showed up the first day, and we only opened as a free feeding centre then because we knew we couldn’t run a live-in home as we were not equipped for that level of care at the time. But the idea was to have a centre where old people can come freely every day of the week to talk, play, make friends, eat, get medical attention, laugh, exercise, dance and just have a great time; just like children going to a park or babies at a day-care centre.
By our fourth week we had gotten up to 80 members in the foundation and I was completely amazed. I discovered that these were not necessarily poor old people living miserable lives, but that they had a few things in common; they needed a place to go to, they wanted to still live, they wanted to be relevant to their children and society somehow, and establish that they are not just a liability by just sitting at home. They wanted a happy place where they felt free, accepted and appreciated – which is what we try to give them at the centre. We provide them with feeding, physical fitness exercises, medical care, welfare and other special needs as they arise; but most of all, we provide a warm and comfortable environment for the old people to feel loved and relevant in the society.
The team and I here at Hope for the Old are always gladdened by the smiles we are able to put on the faces of the elderly people who come to the centre. This, for me, is a personal source of joy and fulfilment, knowing that in many ways I am helping to make the lives of so many elderly people better and more pleasant. I am thrilled about the friendships that have been forged here at the centre, the bond amongst them that the centre has enabled, and the general fact that I am able to let the elderly folks know that being old can still be cool and rewarding for them.
Old Lives Matter – They can make Huge Contributions
A lot of these old people have the history of the country at their fingertips, the things that even our children don’t know nor learn in schools. We can activate a platform where we can harness what they have in terms of knowledge, in terms of experience, and derive immeasurable value from them.
Imagine I am hundred years now and my children have all gone their different ways to different places, but if I know that once a month they all come around with their children to see me and listen to me talk to them about things I know from history, I will spend my time preparing for their visit by gathering and arranging my stories and history lessons throughout the month prior to their visit.
Old people are a very real part of our society, and they have wisdom and experience to their advantage that families and the society can tap into. But the challenge is we can only optimize the things we value, and we can only access value from what we care for and preserve.
It all starts with us valuing them, let them know that we value them. Let us pay them their dues, pay them their pensions, don’t let them queue and die on queues trying to get their pensions or health services. I strongly believe that we can maximise the presence of old people in our midst. Some notable statesmen and individuals in Nigeria like Wole Soyinka and Gamaliel Onosode and the rest of them like that, some of whom have already passed on, don’t have to die without emptying themselves onto us to help us avoid the mistakes they made and guarantee a better society for us all.
Retired but not Expired
Though employment for old people needs to consider their flexibility and physical strength, job sharing roles and part time work can be ideal for elderly people in the society. They can adequately apply their skills and experience in the workplace adding value to the company they are engaged with.
There are a number of opportunities to increase work opportunities for older people, especially in the third sector where there are notoriously low numbers of older people as employees despite having the advantage of experience for some of the causes that these organizations advocate for or against. There is need for a cultural shift so that young people grow up to understand the value of older people in their midst, and then enjoy the many benefits that they can bring to the workplace.
The Way Forward
The first thing is to raise societal consciousness about older people and the fact that they are an important part of society that need to be cared for and properly integrated with society. The government should begin to prioritize programmes and outline concrete steps to help ease the conditions of older people. It could include policies on free medical services in hospitals for older people who don’t have jobs or pensions. We can empower them by providing jobs that align with their capabilities and competencies for such roles. Then laws and policies need to be enacted that help to make livelihood more comfortable for older people. In some countries you see how older people enjoy privileges that help them get by every day with ease and comfort. For example, they don’t have to queue in stores or banks or other service centres, they can have dedicated points strictly allocated for older people only. That’s just one way to help ease life for older people in a society.
All We Need is Care
For members of the Hope for the Old Foundation, all they need is care. Running the foundation has not been easy and since we began it has been solely a privately funded initiative. People are more drawn and given to causes for orphans and motherless babies, but not much care is given for older people. Of course this draws from the earlier mentioned notion that older people who can’t take care of themselves and are abandoned are witches or were bad parents. So I’ve always had to look inwards for help and support.
Since we started the foundation we have only lost two members and for me I didn’t feel so much sorrow each time, rather I felt grateful that I was able to be part of their lives, however briefly, and gave them hope even in their old age. I am encouraged by the thought that I was able to help them find friendship and joy again that lasted till they passed on, and that makes me so happy.
Visit http://hopefortheold.org/ for more information.