Elderly battle as government promises help but cannot pay

“It was painful watching my daughter dying slowly. She begged me to look after her children when she had gone,” said Ambuya Mtombeni (78).

Elderly people bear the brunt of the HIV/Aids pandemic.
Elderly people bear the brunt of the HIV/Aids pandemic.

Three decades after the first clinical evidence of HIV/AIDS was reported, the pandemic has become one of the most devastating diseases humankind has ever faced. While most of its victims are young adults, the virus has major consequences for older people..

Having invested a great deal in educating her daughter, Mtombeni had high hopes for a good life for her. She refused to accept her daughter’s condition and this contributed to Tavonga’s early death. She left three young children.

Ambuya Mtombeni who lives in Mabvuku looks after three children, two of school-going age and the youngest still in crèche.

“I am not getting any help to fend for my grandchildren. I struggle every day to put food on the table and make sure that these children get a decent education and medication among other things,” said Mtombeni, who lives in Mabvuku. Thousands of grandparents throughout Zimbabwe carry the burden of ensuring that their orphaned grandchildren can eat, go to school and find something warm to wear in winter.

At a time in their lives when they themselves need support and care from their children and grandchildren, the elderly are caring for others.

UNICEF /Help Age International (2007) statistics estimates that up to two thirds of people living with HIV and AIDS are cared for by parents in their 60`s and 70`s.

The statistics also estimate that at least 40- 60% of Orphans and Vulnerable Children are under the care of older persons with an average of three per household. A visit by this reporter to Checheche Growth Point in Chipinge revealed some appalling experiences. Esther Kumbula (82) narrated her ordeal: “I try to be strong for these children, as I am the only one they have. I worry about what will happen to them if I died today,” she said.

She cares for three children aged 2, 5 and 7.

“I depend on the generosity of my neighbours who provide clothing and food. But they need to go school too,” she said.

Recurrent droughts, coupled with old age have forced her to shelve farming. She now survives from making cheap floor polish from Chibuku scud tops which her grandchildren sell in the location.

“If people do not buy this, there is no food on the table,” she said.

Help Age Zimbabwe is helping older people in Zvishavane with agricultural inputs, building toilets and boreholes. The organisation is also giving monthly cash to those who are 80 years and above.

Conrad Gweru, the Advocacy and Communications officer, said the elderly had contributed immensely to caring for people living with HIV/AIDS.

“Older people remain the poorest members of society with little or no income to sustain their daily material needs. Some regard old age as a burden resulting in neglect and little or no attention to their needs,” Gweru said.

Help Age Director, Priscilla Gavi, government policy should recognize the caring roles of older people. She said lack of data was a major drawback in appreciating their needs.

“There is need for the government and other stakeholders to recognize the efforts of the elderly. There should be a clause in the constitution that respects the values of the aging population. It is sad that COPAC failed to recognize the value of our recommendations concerning this group and its needs, which means we are going to live within a law that does not protect everyone. “What are we if we fail to recognize such a group of people constituting seven percent of our population?” bemoaned Gavi.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, Paurina Mupariwa Gwanyanya, said her Ministry was well aware of the problems and had introduced two programmes that would see older people getting $20 and $25 for social grants and social protection, respectively.

The Minister said her ministry had not been able to pay the elderly since June last year due to economic constraints. She promised to deposit the outstanding dues as soon as they get the money.

She encouraged them to register the orphans in their care under the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) for assistance in paying school fees. Although the programme is behind in payments to schools, she promised that no child registered under BEAM would be chased away from school.

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