There are 127 elders in total. They usually come in weekly shifts of 51. The other 25 are attended to in their homes.
That is a dream elderly centre at Nkhorongo in Mzuzu, an initiative Saint John of God Community Services Malawi plans to extend to other townships of Masasa and Geisha.
Eight months after its establishment, the elderly tell stories of hospitality, compassion and justice—values that are integral to the institution established in honour of a saint, John Cuidad.
“I had challenges of food. But that is of the past. I don’t sleep on an empty stomach anymore. St John of God gives us tea, lunch and supper every day. This has eased my life,” says 67-year-old Katoma Nkhata.
Nkhata has been suffering from a urinary infection for a decade. Like a baby, urine used to force its way out of his pants even if he is in public.
That is the past.
“St John of God is a saviour. I have been living with this illness for a very long time. But through the programme, doctors screened and treated the condition,” he says.
When the programme was first introduced, the response was overwhelming, says St John of God director of services Charles Mangani.
About 400 elders turned up for screening and treatment. Those with severe cases were referred to Mzuzu Central Hospital, which is in partnership with the institution, he says.
But due to limited capacity, the institution took on board about 127 of them as full members.
“The aim of the programme is to provide strategies that will improve the quality of life for the elderly through provision of psychosocial services that enhance resilience and reduce psychological and emotional distress, facilitation of access to health services, advocacy and networking,” he says.
In Malawi, according to a review in the National Policy for Older Persons, they have difficulties in accessing services and support such as healthcare, loans, nutritious food, transport, information, among others.
The review further shows that older persons are excluded, marginalised and prevented from participating fully in development activities on the basis of their age.
Due to improved life expectancy from 48 years in 2008 to 53 years, the elderly are also burdened with care of orphaned grandchildren and they are often abused due to beliefs in witchcraft.
Worse still, the elderly population is growing at a fast rate worldwide.
Mzuzu, with a population of about 133 968, according to the 2012 Mzuzu Urban Profile, was projected to have a population growth of the elderly aged between 60 and 80 years between 2 345 and 3 798.
This is consistent with the trends world over, according to St John of God programmes coordinator Christopher Mhone.
“Literature shows there has been a sharp increase in the number of older persons worldwide and more old people are alive nowadays than at any time in history. The proportion of the population aged 60 and above is also growing each year,” he says.
By the year 2025, the world will host 1.2 billion people aged 60 and above and rising to 1.9 billion in 2050, says Mhone quoting various sources.
Noticing these challenges, the institution conducted a study in Mzuzu, targeting Zolozolo, Masasa and Luwinga townships.
The study found that although senior citizens experience diminishing energy levels and capacity to mobilise resources, they shoulder a huge burden.
This is especially because of the ‘missing generation’ or ‘absent generation’. According to the study, bana bakutayika lubiro (children are dying too early) which makes the elderly to assume the role of parents for the bereaved grandchildren.
The assessment shows that 58.5 percent of the elderly are bread-winners and have to support themselves as well as their dependants.
Poverty is said to be a big problem among the elderly, with statistics indicating that 57.1 percent can only afford two meals per day and 22.4 percent only eat once per day.
Also revealing is how the elders lack means of earning money to support their extended families with 88.5 percent of the elderly said to be idle.
“Only 11.5 percent have some businesses to support their families. This has an impact on their capacity to support their wards with school materials like fees and also their basic needs like food,” states the study.
However, despite all these challenges, the study reveals that there are no programmes in Mzuzu initiated by government to support the elderly.
“The assessment has revealed that there are currently no existing programmes by government as safety nets to address the needs of the urban poor, including the elders,” it states.
But Mzuzu district social welfare assistant officer Mowbray Chibwatiko disputed the findings, saying government has programmes that target the elderly. He said some of the initiatives include the Social Cash Transfer and psychosocial support where the elderly are counselled.
“The Social Cash Transfer targets the ultra-poor, the labour-constrained individuals and the elderly,” he said. n