By Dr. Devika Brendon
The unfolding pandemic has made us all re-evaluate our thoughts and actions. For many of us, it feels like we are living in a transforming world: one in which our focus on ourselves, and the economic survival and fulfilment of our own families, has been challenged.
We cannot read or listen to the news without realising that the pandemic is affecting the global community differentially. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed social class differences: in terms of access to PCR tests, preferred vaccines and 24 hour health care.
The economically disadvantaged are more vulnerable, have no safety net, and no back up resources. This is where community organisations with their infrastructure and relationships built over many years can positively intervene, in life changing and life supporting ways. Some of the most vulnerable members of our community are the elderly.
As in many societies around the world, Sri Lanka’s traditional social structures are changing, as industrialisation and a more materialistic value system challenges the family-based focus of the past, where our elders were respected, honoured and cared for as they became physically less robust and more frail.
A mindset which values wealth creation, and honours only those individuals whose work creates net worth and property portfolios, inevitably creates disrespect for retirees, who are of course no longer gainfully employed in the private or public sectors. Measuring a person solely by their income will result in our undervaluing those citizens who are perceived as no longer having anything to contribute, and who need to be supported at this stage of their life.
In Sri Lanka, respect for our elders is ingrained, as one of the most important aspects of our culture, and thus it is a natural outcome that good work is being done by community organisations to support our senior citizens.
This work often goes unrecognised, and is therefore not sufficiently unsupported. In the past two decades, the traditional extended family structure has been disrupted, by internal and external migration, as the younger generation leave their homes in search of better job prospects. Those who remain behind often do not have the skill, patience or time to care for their elders.
It is important that this shortfall should be addressed at this juncture, as our elderly citizens are among the most vulnerable in our community, both financially and in terms of their physical age and diminished health conditions, which make them especially vulnerable in this pandemic.
The Help Age Organisation operates through grass roots Senior Citizen Committees to raise awareness of older people’s specific rights and needs. These include access to ID cards and pensions, and access to shelter and food, necessary for survival, and to medical care, as many elderly citizens are home bound or less mobile, and need home care services which are administered by volunteers. Sri Lanka has one of the largest ageing populations in the world, and Help Age is the only charity organisation working in the country which has been created solely to address the needs of our elderly citizens.
Fundamental to their vision is the upholding of human dignity, and an awareness of the ways age and infirmity result in increased vulnerability and dependency in the elderly.
To be able to support vulnerable people without disrespecting their dignity requires sensitivity training, dedication and commitment. The training of the staff is crucial to this service and support, and fulfils an essential humanitarian role in this sphere. Help Age trains staff to offer everyday home care to elderly citizens, within their family environment.
‘There needs to be more acceptance and better management of people in their old age’, said a colleague of mine, recently. ‘When you get older, you can't expect your kids to look after you - it's not fair by them. This is a very South Asian attitude. Putting your parent in a well tended elders home is better than living dysfunctionally with each other.
Also many old people suffer from conditions like Dementia and Alzheimers, and you need professional care for that. Also people with mental illness cannot live on their own - they need constant supervision by a trained professional.
You cannot expect your children to do that.’ The Help Age organisation provides support for vision challenged elders through a dedicated Eye Hospital in Wellawatte, providing medical assistance for those who cannot afford cataract surgery and the associated expenses of purchasing lenses.
They have also created a Mobile Medical Unit: a clinic-onwheels which is equipped to offer medical diagnosis and treatment to elders in remote or inaccessible places in the country, free of charge. Help Age has also prepared for the ongoing future recognition and upholding of the rights and dignities of the elderly, by implementing Youth Education Programmes, to create awareness in the younger generation of the community responsibilities we must face and take on as we all deal with the inevitable ageing process.
Empathy, compassion and kindness are values which can effectively remedy the estrangement and objectification many elderly citizens are met with, in an increasingly materialistic global society.
Elderly citizens, due to their lack of mobility, also require special assistance during seasonal emergencies such as floods, which render many homeless. This is where community based enterprises are most useful, as the staff are vigilant and aware of the most vulnerable members of each village, and able to assist with essential medical supplies and care where it is most needed.
With this clear and robust organisational structure, and supported by donations from both corporate investors and private individuals, Help Age has been in a good position to assist the elderly during the COVID-19 crisis. Nearly 10,000 vulnerable citizens have been assisted by the Give 2 Asia Project, in the period May to September 2021; with essential PPE and hand washing units being provided, and vaccination awareness programmes being conducted.
Senior citizens are also provided with access to traditional medicine treatments via the provision of a dedicated Ayurvedha Treatment Centre in Boralesgamuwa, which is affiliated with the Faculty of Ayurvedic Medicine in Colombo University.
Above all, this organisation focuses on the emotional and psychological well being of our elders, not treating them as people with just physical needs. They are seen as people who have contributed to the community throughout their lives, and so deserve our respect and support in their later years.
These ongoing supportive activities and acts of commitment are needed in our society. As age takes away our privilege, embodied generosity, and dedicated care and concern as shown in these initiatives, can restore our faith in humanity, especially our own.