Have we lost focus of what’s important?

Helping our elders age gracefully

By Shanelle Bandara

Located on the outskirts of Colombo is a quaint little home known as the Maria Home – Helping Hand for Elders.
As we entered the home, we noticed a few elderly ladies going about their business, either reading or admiring the surrounding nature. We were then warmly welcomed by the owner of the home who wishes to keep her identity under wraps. She was kind enough to show us around the home. It currently facilitates 14 ladies and so looks much like any regular house and not like an elderly home.

The residents’ rooms are relatively neat and each room has an attached bathroom. Furthermore, each room can accommodate up to three people. The property is also home to a little garden that has an assortment of flowers, grown and tended to by some of the ladies.

In Sri Lanka, several cases of abuse towards the elderly have been reported in the news. In 2015, a 78-year-old woman was reported to have been locked away in an iron cage built into a room near the bathroom in her eldest daughter’s home in the Karuwalabedde area in Meetiyagoda, Galle. Her eldest daughter was working abroad and hence the old woman was being “taken care of” by her son-in-law and two granddaughters. Their reasoning behind having locked her up was because she was of unsound mind and had wandering habits.

Another case of abuse that made the rounds in the media was in 2016, when an 84-year-old woman was allegedly locked up in a poultry shed behind a house in Wanni Kudawewa, in Kudawewa. The local report stated that the woman had to use the shed she was confined in as a lavatory, resulting in emitting a rather nauseating smell. Furthermore, the Police had discovered a bed without a mattress or pillows as the aged woman was hunchbacked and could not straighten her back. Once again, similar to the previous report, the daughter of this woman claimed that the elderly woman had a habit of wandering about, and so her best solution was allegedly to chain her up at night.

Such incidents of abuse towards elders are somewhat commonplace here in Sri Lanka and the above mentioned are just a couple of the many incidents that have occurred. There are even cases of abuse towards elders that go unheard.
What has happened to humanity and our moral compass? Some may even wander if it even existed to begin with. Elders are often cast aside as they are considered a burden by the family. Moreover, in instances where the family cannot “get rid” of them, abuse occurs. It is an unfortunate and tragic situation. However, a glimmer of hope shines through for some of these poor souls through the elder’s homes that exist within Sri Lanka.

A home away from home

After our small tour of the Maria Home, we sat down, and that is when the story began.

Maria Home

Firstly, the owner explained why she set up this home. “Ever since I was a little girl, I always dreamt of having a place like this,” she said, with a sparkle in her eyes.

She had always cared for the elderly and looked after them when they got ill. She never worried about herself falling sick when tending to the sick. This sparked her interest in starting a home for the elders. After she moved to Athurugiriya, she had the idea of having a home for the elderly who were living on the streets. However, this plan didn’t materialise as taking on the daunting task of looking after street dwellers was too much of a responsibility. Therefore, she started, on a smaller scale, a home which had four occupants. Even though she wanted to start a bigger home, she unfortunately could not as she didn’t have the capacity or resources to do so.

Subsequently, she met a Dutch lady who agreed to help her in her conquest. It was then possible for her to expand to the current setup.

The owner also related tales of a few of the elderly ladies in the home. After having received the required resources with the assistance of her new friend, the owner took in two elderly ladies from the street, one of who still stays at the home today; it has been almost 14 years since.

She described the lady as a rather difficult character with a history of alcoholism. Apparently, the lady used to consume alcohol merely to numb the pain she felt from her children abandoning her after she met with an accident and wasn’t able to care for herself.

After the accident, no one picked her up from the hospital, and so she had to wander out into the cold and cruel streets. According to the owner, at the time, the lady had been staying at a marketplace near the home, and the owner had begun communicating with her.

At one point, the owner had asked her if she would like to stay at the home, which the lady misunderstood as the owner looking to engage her in work. And this, the elderly woman did not take kindly to. However, after some time, she moved into the home.

This is just one of the many tragic stories of the women residing in the home, as recounted by the owner. The owner also added that she tries to reconnect these individuals with their families but sometimes, it is to no avail.

Even though the home was initially run with the assistance of the Dutch lady, once the funds started dwindling, they opted to charge a nominal fee from the elderly whose families could afford it. However, they are charged no more than Rs. 8,000.

There are, of course, those who do not have any means of paying, and they are taken care of free of charge. They receive alms and donations from well-wishers and survive through those means.

With regards to any health-related concerns, the ladies are taken to a government hospital in the area and according to the owner, the services offered are wonderful.

Home is where the heart is

After speaking to the owner, we requested to speak with one of the residents in the home. We were then promptly directed to a room with two elderly ladies, one of whom was named Margie.

As we entered we noticed how well kept the place was. A Bible and a few trinkets were neatly stacked in a side unit and next to it was a bed covered with a net.

Margie was scrubbing away at her nightdress in the bathroom when we entered. We asked if we could have a chat with her, to which she kindly obliged.

She slowly made her way to a chair and when we asked if we could help her, she refused and stated that she was able to walk. As she sat down, she narrated the tale of her life; how she met with an accident in which she damaged her leg and her escapades labelling bottles for a doctor.

Her tale intrigued us, but most of all, what she finally said tugged on our heartstrings. “I am happy here, this is my home, and Madam (the owner) provides us with everything we need. We have made it by God’s grace.” Her resilient and bubbly personality made us admire her even more.

The responsible

As we exited the home, we thought of asking the general public their opinions on the homes and their thoughts on abuse towards elders. We met an individual named Jeremy Walker who gave his take on this.

According to Walker, the main reason behind the abuse and dumping elders in homes is because “we have lost focus on what is important”.

Sri Lankan culture is usually family-oriented. However in recent times, people have distanced themselves from the Sri Lankan culture. “Life has become a rat race; people want to better each other in their jobs and whatnot, and because of this, they have forgotten what is most dear and important – family,” Walker explained.

He went on to say that he took care of his elderly mother, who, unfortunately, passed away. He admitted that looking after the elderly can be rather trying. Having to put up with his mother’s outbursts and her refusals to take medication really did test him. However, he did not lose sight of what was important. When questioned as to why he had not thought of seeking help by placing his mother in a home, he said: “I didn’t do that because she had done so much for me and this was the least I could do to repay her.”

He candidly stated that he probably did not even manage to repay 1% of what she had done for him. “It is only when they are gone that we realise what we have lost,” he added.

Walker he also shared that he had gotten a bit of hired help.

This made us wonder if there any education is provided for the hired help here in Sri Lanka.

Educating the carers

When investigating the matter, we discovered that the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) does in fact offer a course for locals as well as migrants. The course offered to locals is the National Diploma in Aged Care. Detailing the nitty-gritty of the course was SLFI lecturer Renuka Tennakoon. With regards to the content of the diploma, she said: “The syllabus covers the physical, social, and psychological parts of ageing. It takes a holistic approach on care and we cannot do just one part of it only.”

When SLFI was carrying out a survey for caregiving for children, they also discovered a high demand for caregiving for elders, and so decided to offer this course. Tennakoon elaborated that even though there are many caretakers, most of them do not have the adequate training to properly manage the elderly.

We were also informed that the diploma for skilled migrants would be starting for the first time this February.

Furthermore, Tennakoon added that the job of a caretaker is quite a respectable job and earns a rather handsome salary.

In addition to this, there is always a high demand due to the high ageing population of Sri Lanka.

The ones who have the elders’ back

Besides educating the carers, we also looked into the organisations that stood up for the elders and their rights, and lo and behold, we found HelpAge Sri Lanka (HASL). Educating us on what HelpAge strives for and how it came to be, was HASL Executive Director Samantha Liyanawaduge.

Help-Age programme for elders

He initially explained to us as to how HASL came to be. “HelpAge was formed in 1986 and has been serving the elderly for the last 34 years. While we are affiliated with HelpAge International, which is our mother organisation, HASL is an independent organisation. We have our own activities and fundraising programmes.

“In the past, HelpAge International funded 50% of our programmes, but since becoming a developing and middle-income nation, they only fund one programme.”

Liyanawaduge also mentioned that Sri Lanka will be facing an issue with regards to the ageing population as we have been identified to be a country with a high ageing population. Due to this, HASL continuously advocates programmes that work towards extending the retirement age.

Earlier on, the retirement age was 55 years. By making people retire at this age, he believes that the nation loses the ageing population’s contribution to society. Hence, those at HASL believe that the retirement age should be 60 or 65 years.
The other programmes HASL conducts are active ageing programmes. Furthermore, HASL also has its own mobile medical unit which goes to villages and screens the elders. This is done completely free of charge. Another endeavour by HASL is an eye hospital where they do free cataract surgery for the elderly. Liyanawaduge also mentioned that the strength behind the organisation is their Chairman, Deshabandu Tilak de Zoysa.

He concluded by stating that HASL’s core value is bringing family close together. “We do not believe in putting elders in homes.”

Our elders have done so much for us by raising us and teaching us right from wrong. The least we could do is help them age gracefully.


Featured photo: Nirlendu Saha on Unsplash