Kenya's changing economics of aging

Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich and Central Bank of Kenya Governor Central Bank of Kenya Dr. Patrick Njoroge and Kenya Bankers Association Chief Executive Officer Habil Osaka addressing the press at KICC on the situation of Banking sector in the country after Chase Bank was put under receivership. ON 08/04/16. [PHOTO: JENIPHER WACHIE]

On Saturday last week, I was invited to a brainstorming meeting to discuss a project proposal by Dimesse Sisters, a Catholic congregation founded by Fr Antony Pagani 440 in 1579 AD. The founding philosophy of the congregation is “respond to the needs of the people during their lifetime.”

The congregation’s immediate objective is to start an elders home in Laikipa. They already run a home called Talitha Kum for children living with HIV at Nyahururu . One could easily see an elders' home as a church project, but it’s much more than that.

Aging is becoming a national issue. It never used to be when children stayed with parents and took care of them. In fact, aging was never an issue, it was an integral part of life. With respect and privileges increasing with age, old age was time to look forward to with great expectations.

Once an elder, you got respect from the younger people, you could even consume alcohol irrespective of gender and help make important decisions for the community. You could adjudicate in cases and mete out punishment. You helped to keep the society straight and in order.

The respect came from another source; the elder’s contribution to the society when they were younger. They married and got children, perpetuated the community and defended it from enemies.

Polygamous families ensured there was no shortage of children to take care of you as you aged. One of the mysteries of the past is whether polygamy ever led to a shortage of wives. Any economist would suggest that it would have led to a rise in bride price or dowry because of demand.

Alternatively, there could have been violence as men fought for wives. Perhaps this explains why in war women and children were always spared. Was the bride price or dowry fixed to stop some men being “priced out” and finding wives unaffordable?

Today things are different. We are having fewer wives and children which means a reduction in the pool of those who can take care of us in old age. The joy we get in small families seems to fade as we age. It used to be the other way round for our grandparents whose lives improved as the many children matured and became a source of joy and “insurance”.

Bride price, which was never paid at once, was another source of social insurance. Nowadays some couples pay all the bride price before the wedding. 

Today, age is one of the many sources of respect. Other sources that now compete with age include wealth, profession, family background and branding (for socialites).

Living longer

We are living longer, which means we have more years after the empty nest when children leave home. This means more years of loneliness - and, unfortunately, more years of ill health. It is paradoxical that we incur most of our health costs when very young and when old, at the beginning and end of our lives.

Globalisation means that your few children could be far away, even in another country. Some could argue that with phone including video calls, that is not a problem. But no call can equal sitting with your parents and sharing stories by the fireside. Family connection cannot be equated with hired care-givers.

There is no place you can age more gracefully than at home surrounded by children, relatives and sights and sounds of nature like wind, crops growing or domestic animals.

We are also busier and have less time for our parents and those outside our nuclear family. This business has also dehumanised us: We are less concerned about other people; we have become more self-centered and individualistic despite the proliferation of churches. Imagine how parents long to meet their grown-up children, not so much for money, but company.

These developments mean that aging has become a big problem not just for elders but for the care-givers particularly the children, already caught up in the hustles and bustles of modern life. I’m told of children who take their aged parents to hospital when they are going on a holiday.

It seems what we gain materially as we become more affluent, we lose it on soft issues such as care-giving as we age. Some argue this is an unintended consequence of economic growth or modernism. Proponents of economic growth are often mute on that. They paint economic growth and development as a panacea for all our problems.

I wonder if the term old age appears in Vision 2030 or in our 2020 constitution, I wonder if it will appear in the referendum questions. Our image of economic progress is hinged on youthful exuberance.

Material things are not enough, they cannot replace the human touch, the cry of a baby or its laughter. Unfortunately, we are faithfully following in the footsteps of developed countries that we admire even when we have never visited them. These nations rarely show their aged, they portray themselves as full of energetic youth.

But if you visit old people’s homes, often called nursing homes in the West, you will realise that aging is a reality no nation can or will escape. It is unlikely that we shall come up with a drug that will keep us forever young.

The problem of an aging population and its care can partly be solved by the market. Lots of old people’s homes or nursing homes are privately owned in the West. I’m not sure how the Chinese and others Easterners take care of the elderly particularity when the one-child policy was enforced. The parents or their children pay for their stay in nursing homes. And it’s often not cheap. In some cases, the government subsidises.

In Kenya, the government is responding by giving stipends to the elderly, which is a great idea. After all, the elderly spent their youth building the nation. Some paid a heavy price through detention while fighting for the freedom we take for granted through corruption.

Non-state actors such as churches are picking the tabs. The Dimmesse Sisters model is innovative. In their proposed home at Gatundia in Laikipia, the elderly will visit for a short period to relax and be renewed unlike in the other homes where elders stay for long periods. The proposed home has other innovations like building a nursery school so that the elderly can see the kids. Elders love children, they remind them of their golden past and continuity.

There will be a farm so that the elderly can see animals too and connect with nature. A guest house will make it easy for visiting children to spend more time with their parents.

The location of the proposed home is ideal because of warm weather. Laikipia is located on the transition zone between the cold and wet highlands and the arid north. Is that what attracted mzungus?  The location in the rural areas also shows that the problem of caring for the elderly is not unique to urban areas.

Beyond the churches and other not-for-profit organisations, families, particularly the affluent privately hire care givers for the elderly. For the less affluent, it is children who take care of their aging parents - it is cheaper for them. Truth be told, and credit given, most care givers for the elderly are women.

Whichever approach one uses, caring for the elderly has become a national issue. It is not going away any time time soon. We might as well reluctantly accept that taking care of the elderly is a sign of modernism.

Shortage of care-givers

The cost will be accentuated by the shortage of care-givers. In developed countries immigrants, some from Kenya, form the bulk of care-givers. It is an open question where our care-givers will come from. Remember we are moving towards smaller families.

Caring for the elderly will become part of our lives just like in the developed countries. The illusion created that only good things come from the West or East is coming to an end as we confront the reality of an aging population. While we may not be in the same class with Japan, our time is coming and we better be prepared.

With our traditions fading, we have to come up with a local model of taking care of the elderly. The Dimesse Sisters have blazed the trail. The proposed name of the elder’s home is St. Anne & Joachim Hope Centre for the Elderly. Anne and Joachim were the grandparents of Jesus.

You could contact Dimesse Sisters if you are touched and help them achieve their dreams. After all, we are all potential customers of the proposed home.

- The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi. Email: [email protected]

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Dimesse SistersEconomicsKenyaVision 2030