Zimbabwe: Caring for the Elderly Against the Grain

21 October 2020

In patriarchal societies, voluntary palliative care even for young people, is a social service largely performed by women, while men are off trudging with more exerting physical occupations.

Typically, during the Cyclone Idai recovery, as men searched in the spectre of ruble remnants of destroyed homes, digging through mud for missing relatives and families, women were left caring for the injured and maimed.

In the tumultuous aftermath of Idai development partners, government and international response and recovery efforts were directed to Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, following this unprecedented disaster.

Cyclone Idai is one of the worst natural disasters to have struck three Southern African countries, government statistics indicating that 344 people died in Zimbabwe, while 347 are missing (presumed dead) and more than 4 500 people displaced.

A total of 270 000 people are in need of humanitarian assistance with women, children and the elderly disproportionately affected.

While a semblance of normalcy has returned, roadwork and infrastructure repairs are still ongoing, only the vestiges of the sheer force of nature remain, telling a story of climatic shocks and ill-prepared communities.

Years after the Cyclone with some villagers still living in makeshift camps it became apparent that in the flurry of recovery exertions, numbed communities overlooked its elderly survivors.

Takesure Sheremu, a local villager who joined in the search for missing victims in scattered debris saw the futility of the continued search for missing persons without machines to lift house-sized boulders which crushed through human settlements.

Instead of paddling against the current, Sheremu took up a similarly noble vocation, not dictated by his physical abilities or social imperatives but by a deeply personal moral drive to participate in the recovery.

He volunteered to offer palliative care and psychosocial support to elderly persons conscious that he was challenging social norms by going against the grain of 'backward patriarchal social constructs'.

"As a volunteer, I provide psychosocial support to elderly survivors, people are surprised when they discover it's a man, against the grain of what society expects," he said.

"After Cyclone Idai elders were being neglected, so when the opportunity came I volunteered to contribute meaningfully in recovering from this disaster. We need to challenge backward patriarchal social constructs that dissuade community participation because of gender."

Sheremu joined a group of volunteers working under National Ageing Network of Zimbabwe (NANZ) to offer psychosocial support for elderly survivors of Cyclone Idai in Chimanimani and Chipinge districts.

NANZ partners are implementing a project Strengthening Older Persons Support in Humanitarian Action (SOSHA) an initiative of the Centre for Community Development Solutions (CCDS), Island Hospice Health Care, HelpAge International, and Partnership for Development International through the support of ADH Germany.

Buoyed by a sense of social responsibility SOSHA volunteers operate with minimal support, navigating rugged terrains scared by the Cyclone, for kilometres on end, to make weekly house calls for the elderly person.

The volunteer groups have also transformed into income-generating self-help for elderly people affected by Cyclone Idai and have grown over the past 6 months with the support of volunteers from development partners.

"Sometimes you get to a house and discover the elderly person does not have even anything to eat and we just appeal amongst ourselves first and also well-wishers and provide food for them," said Sheremu.

In the local VBS village in Chimanimani where Sheremu operates, there are at least 125 elderly persons that have various health, social and physical limitations that need attention.

Mostly volunteers working with a local nurse who assists with medical care, provide psychosocial and moral support to stimulate mental agility of elders numbed by the trauma of losing their families and livelihood.

"We go on house visits every week to check on the general welfare of the elderly persons from their health, food security if there is need we also refer to government and other development partners.

"We provide psychosocial support to comfort and console them over the Cyclone Idai trauma because some lost their all their livelihoods and we are there to provide comfort and ensure that they feel, part of a family.

"Sometimes we are even going into our personal coffers to assist elderly persons," he said.

NANZ says the lack of disaggregated statistics on affected persons needs limited reach to the elderly persons who have variegated needs from their younger counterparts.

Chair of the national Older person board, Priscilla Gavi said it is valiant efforts of male champions like Sheremu which springs hope in humankind, even in gloomy aftermaths of climate change-induced natural disasters.

Gavi was leading the Older Persons Board on a tour of Chimanimani, for a first-hand assessment of the plight of elderly persons who are living in disaster-prone areas.

She said the selfless efforts by volunteers to provide support for the elderly represent fading cultural values, deposited in the elderly which should be embraced.

"It's difficult to attend to the needs of others without any compensation, but this is what is expected of us in our culture, it's Ubuntu that we take care of the elderly. They have worked for the country, they are also our parents, so they deserve to be given respect and dignified living.

"What volunteers are doing resonates with our cultural values to take care of the elderly," said Gavi

Marck Chikanza national coordinator NANZ says physiologically the burden of bereavement weighs more on the elderly when younger generations perish, yet their needs were neglected in the post-disaster recovery response.

He said male volunteers like Sheremu represents a rare breed of men who are willing to set aside their ego and societal preconceptions to get involved in providing care for the elderly

Chakanza said their intervention was triggered by this dearth of attention to the vulnerable elderly persons and post-disaster relief efforts which left out the elderly.

"In a moral sense, it pains the elderly more when they have to bury their children. This is the plight for elderly, for other this trauma is compounded by the fact that some of their loved ones are missing and they have no closure," said Chikanza.

As Sub Sahara Africa heaves from frequent natural disasters rural communities are highly impacted by climate shocks, governments are more conscious of the need for robust policies which empower people.

Zimbabwe similarly is responding with a National Ageing Policy which aims to enhance social service provision as well as strengthen disaster response mechanisms to respond effectively to the needs of elderly persons.

Through the Ministry of Labor and Social, Welfare government has partnered civic society organisations under the banner of NANZ as technical advisors to develop the policy.

"We need a holistic framework to coordinate developing partners and build community resilience in response to disasters and in particular to effectively carter for the needs of the elderly," said Clifford Matorera, chief director in the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.

Such policy considerations may be out of his purview, but Sheremu is not daunted by the task he has taken as a vocation, to provide tangible on the ground assistance to elderly persons in need.

His rationalization is simple, he too will age and need the support of others.

"I found it important to take of the needs of the elderly because ageing is a natural process that everyone undergoes, next it will be me and I hope to also get care from the younger generation," said Sheremu.

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