The Village Needs to be Revisited

Saffiyah Edoo

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As I emerge from the haze of flu and a bout of bronchitis, I cannot help but be grateful for the ability to be back on my feet and feel my lungs function properly again. As many of us these past weeks, I fell sick after caring for sick kids. As I was taking care of them, I could not help but think fondly of my grandmother, my Nani, who used to dote on us, albeit with her legendary strictness when we were sick.

We grew up in an extended family setting in the shade of our parents’ care doubled with Nani’s and Nana’s strict and wise love. When we would fall sick, Nani would make sure that we ate, with a special breakfast, the mandatory chicken broth for lunch or dinner and piping hot sweet custard in case we could not swallow a thing, pampering us in her own very special way. She would forbid us from coming downstairs, sending our food to our rooms, she would urge us to go sit in the balcony, take some fresh air, while she made our beds and aired our rooms, doing her best to give us comfort during sickness. Whenever I get sick, I crave for her care; I did strongly, especially postpartum. But as with many other things related to her, I have confined this memory to a special chest of memories that bears her name, deep in my heart. Nani is still among us, but she is half the person she used to be physically; her personality almost a mirage, making fleeting appearances in few and far between instances.


Five years ago, Nani braved a hip surgery at the age of 83, the first time she ever stayed in hospital in her life. Against all odds, and thanks to her indomitable will, she started walking again without any aids. She went back to her routine of reading newspapers, offering her unvarnished opinion on whatever was happening in the country for she was an avid follower of news, steadfast in her prayers, chiding us for not coming to see her or coming too often, for such are strong-willed grandmas. She dearly missed her beloved kitchen and garden (when I was a little girl, I used to secretly believe that the plants grew beautiful because they were scared of her too), as taking stairs daily was too much for her. But she carried on that next phase of her life, accepting its new curveball.

However, a few months ago, she took a turn for the worse, on the day that her beloved oldest grandchild said goodbye to her after a surprise visit following almost 4 years of absence. She was suddenly mostly bedridden, unable to function on her own, needing help for everything. As her body shut down, so did her personality, she talks less, speaks only when spoken to, she strongly dislikes being left on her own, some nights has trouble sleeping and subsists on a very reduced appetite. While all this is understandable given her age, we often feel like we are experiencing reverse times. Today, along with our Mum, who is her primary caregiver, and immediate family members, we feel like it is our turn to take care of the one person who has taken care of all of us. On this caregiving journey, we are learning a lot of things. Whenever we meet family members or friends, who ask after Nani, we often hear of similar stories of caregiving in other families, with increasing occurrence, which reflects the geriatric demography of our country. It is often said that the elderly return to a state similar to that of a newborn. And similar to requiring a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to care for an elderly sick person.

Rallying the Village

Taking care of a sick elderly requires a lot of patience, resilience, robustness, solid mental health and very importantly, a strongly reliable network of people who will come together towards the rallying point that is the elderly in moments of need. During the care of an elderly, the caregiver(s) is often overlooked. Today, as many of us are using tools for parenting honed for us by years of research on effective parenting, we cannot help but think that we need something similar for the care of the elderly. Many caregivers, the majority women, are today caring for their family members by sheer instinct or applying what they have learned through transmission. This by no means implies that such methods are not correct, but they may not be at their best.

More often than not, the “burden” lies on one person, the primary caregiver. Compared to caring for a child, where the primary caregiver is arguably young, very capable of bouncing back from the energy spent looking after children, especially in the first years, caring for the elderly is different ballgame altogether. In a good many cases, the primary caregiver is him/herself of a certain age, besieged sometimes with his/her own set of health problems, which makes solo caregiving a laborious task. In certain cases, depending on the severity of the afflictions of the elderly in question, caring requires inured mental health. This is where the all-important village comes in play. The primary caregiver, very often, thanks to filial bond, has a hard time to ask for help, believing that s/he is shirking from duties towards the parent. But breaks are necessary to recover and to come back stronger.

Listing Priorities

Today, as many are discussing policies and proposals for the future, admittedly for somewhat vested interests, geriatric care must be among the top priorities. With a rapidly increasing aging population, policymakers must not focus on care for the elderly only as eyewash to win elections. Caring for the elderly does not only mean monetary increase (while also increasing basic needs and medical care equipment and medications…) but it also means increase in support. The wise tactician would seriously consider support for the carer. In some countries, like France, parents get support through state subsidized helpers who come in to relieve parents a couple of times a week. With an intelligent allocation of funds, a similar strategy could also be seriously considered. Moreover, carers should be able to access platforms or resource persons to talk about the issues and challenges they face on both personal and practical levels for it is only when carers are well that they will be able to give back in a better way.

Very often, when it is my turn to look after Nani, I watch her stare into space. I wonder if she is reminiscing about her life, if she feels trapped in her body, with her mind still active, if she relives the past. She has certain quirks and habits that feel unreal for we have grown up seeing her doing these things when her hands were smooth and firm, today the same actions are being done with veiny and wrinkled hands, bearing a stark resemblance to those of her own mother. As I watch her, I cannot help but wonder if I will be graced one day, in my old age, should God grant me, by the village of support that surrounds Nani with such care and love.

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