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Forgotten fathers: The curse of loneliness afflicting elderly men

Features
 Elderly man looking at camera in retirement home. (Courtesy/iStock)

Josephat Mugeka* had it all in his younger years. He was the poster boy of what you would call an ideal father. As a career civil servant, he not only had a good salary, extra perks and benefits.

With the strong financial standing, he could afford to take his three children, a son and two daughters to high-end schools in Kenya. 

The children grew up and got jobs of their own. They no longer needed the father for daily upkeep. Josephat was also happy that he could now rest from the daily hassles. He was looking forward to a good retirement and a breath of fresh air in his ancestral home near the Aberdares in Murang’a County.

Six years ago, his eldest daughter and son relocated to the US. That should have evoked good feelings for a father who had done everything possible to ensure his children had a grand future. It did not.

“My children invited their mother for a visit a couple of years ago,” he says in a phone interview.

“Initially she was just supposed to stay for a few weeks, but later opted for a long-term stay, saying she wanted to help look after our grandchildren. She only comes here for Christmas and New Year holidays.” 

Back in Murang’a, Josephat, 74, has to contend with feelings of loneliness, not sure if his wife of 41 years will ever come back. And he is not alone.

Scores of retired men in different parts of the country are battling similar feelings of dejection. Having done the heavy lifting in their productive years, they now find themselves having to live the remainder of their lives in isolation, with only a handful of domestic workers and equally elderly village folk for company.

Loneliness syndrome

Is this “solo ageing” scourge avoidable or do men dive right into it as a result of how they lived their lives earlier?

To understand part of fathers’ loneliness syndrome, one needs to review Sajit Pillai’s version of the ‘Three Dispensations of Power’ within the family.

Through a viral post on social media, Pillai describes the first 25 years in the life of the family as the period where power indisputably rests with the father or the “Lion of the Tribe of his House”.

The second period sets in after the children have grown and started working. At this time, he says, power shifts to the mother. Finally, the third period is when children move out of home to start families of their own and power moves to the children.

“During (the first) dispensation, the father rules with an iron fist,” says Pillai.

“He barks orders and determines what does or does not happen. The father often vents out corporal punishment to the recalcitrant children. They grow to fear him more than they love him. The father is the provider for the family and everyone is aware of that fact with all attendant consequences.”

However, it is in the second dispensation of power in the family that fathers lose almost all control of what they held firmly in their hands — power.

When the children start earning their own money, Pillai says, for some reason, “it is their mothers they decide to look after”.

He alludes — correctly or incorrectly — that the father was busy with the business of providing and may not have done much to befriend the children, forcing them to spend more time with their mother.

Such children, he adds, see their mother as a “co-victim of the father’s tyranny” and move in to protect her.

“The mother takes centrestage at this point. She is the first to know what’s happening with the children and she has the big advantage of being closer with the children during their growing years. Should any of the daughters give birth, she is the one that goes for babysitting and the children spoil her with gifts,” he says.

It is this ‘babysitting and being spoilt with gifts’ that has many a Kenyan father seething with frustration, especially since such a mother and children no longer rely on him for sustenance that kept him at the helm. It is even worse if the father’s financial position has shifted downwards.

According to the National Institute of Health, loneliness in men in their twilight years as a result of such absent mates can be a major precursor to depression leading to other serious health problems such as hypertension and heart-related complications.

Unfortunately, men have little social shock absorbers and bottle up their feelings while trying to maintain their dwindling machismo.

“When the wife leaves to be with their children and grandchildren in our cities or abroad, the man feels hopeless and has few friends to confide in,” says Richard Wafula, corporate affairs manager and counselling psychologist at Amani Counselling Centre and Training Institute.

“Unfortunately, too, some men may not have contributed to team efforts to stabilise family relationships beyond providing. A woman in such a relationship seeks solace in children.”

Richard says in old age, a man needs company and that is why some opt to either marry another woman or cohabit with one “despite the disapproval from the same children who took the mother away”.

“At that age, a man has gone full circle and needs much care and attention. He needs a good meal and someone to take care of the home. In the absence of such care, some overindulge in alcohol, leading to health complications and at times, death,” says Richard.

Mwenda Thuranira, a realtor, says men need to take care of themselves through sound retirement planning in a way that benefits their spouses as well.

“If you invest everything in children, what happens to you in old age? You need to balance for the rainy day. Financial planning is vital so that even if family members leave you are okay. Some wives opt to live with their children because of poor investments made by the man. When you have nothing, even your dog will bite you,” says Mwenda.

Regardless of the source of their frustrations, Wafula urges men to open up more and share their innermost feelings without fear of being judged.

“We have observed a slight increase in the number of men coming for mental health therapy. They are now talking of things they would have hardly shared with anyone else before,” he says.

Such openness, he says, ought to be an intentional journey to be taken right from an early age and not just at their sunset years.

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