Changing economic circumstances and older persons care

Zimbabwe has undergone profound social, and economic changes, which have inadvertently impacted on the previously thriving traditional care facilities for older persons.  

The traditional household care was of course primary, with medical facilities being “referral” institutions especially for routine medical checks or serious conditions warranting the doctor’s attention.

This system which provided care and support to older persons was a by-product of embedded cultural and religious values.

All religions attach a sentimental value to the care of older persons, which presumably brings blessings as a reward in the fullness of time.

Psalms 71 verse 9 reads: “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent.”

But I digress.

It is trite that the changing social and economic conditions, which have a bearing on the household care of older persons, has not only impacted on the Zimbabwean society alone, but generally the African circumstances in general.

Before the advent of colonialism, we had our people staying in rural areas which were organised as polities, led by chiefs. Their subjects were essentially closely knit families, which were often large, extended and quite often organised on totem lines.

Then came colonialism which ofcourse disrupted this family organisation, with African working males toiling in industries in towns.

Wives remained behind in rural areas with the children, in what constituted an egregious racial system which had a bearing on the family’s traditional organisation.

Despite these threats however, the African family unit was intact. It was bound to the values of love, peace and coexistence despite the magnanimity of the disruptions which it was going through, following colonialism.

Then of course, the advent of independence brought glorious opportunities for our previously marginalised. So our people left rural areas, chasing one opportunity after another in the thriving industries servicing the local and foreign markets.

In turn, high density suburbs were quickly populated, as the labour force engaged in various economic activities. Of course there were even some, who went on and started new lives in low density suburbs which ofcourse had been the preserve of the whites, or simply the “few Africans” who had made the “cut”.

It is trite that the overwhelming social and economic changes, which have had a bearing on the care of the older persons, can be traced to this time that is post-independence.

The rural-urban migration marked a genesis of this social mobility which has continued to reinvent itself with each passage of time. Older persons have bore the brunt of these changes.

Further to the characteristic internal movements, it has however been the outbound migration of young people which has severely affect the social organisation of the family unit, despite the mass connectivity brought by the internet and social media.

Zimbabwe’s “born free generation” is largely cosmopolitan. Today our young people are now searching for jobs and educational opportunities regionally and internationally. Without doubt, this diaspora based contingent has played an incisive role sending remittances back home, in the process assuming critical social functions.

But that is part of the story; the family unit and its ties have been severely weakened. 

But how did we get there Zimbabwe?

In the past polygamy was a thriving system, which unions led to the “strong family” unit which primarily served economic purposes for subsistence farming.  Even those in monogamous entities also bore several children who would assist in farming and other such economic activities.

While both practices of monogamy and polygamy sought for a “strong family unit”, the patriarchal society however largely framed women’s roles as child bearers.

Notwithstanding these realities however, there is no doubt that this system provided essential care to senior citizens, especially during the times of advanced years, requiring undivided social and medical attention.

Nowadays, we even see some unfortunate individualism, neglect and even rampant selfishness as our society neglects its primary care responsibility which defined our societal organisation.

Notwithstanding the numerous causes which one can put on account of the neglect of older people, there is however no doubt that our society has become a pure shadow of its past.

In the past, our society was loving, value based and attached a sentimentality older persons, who were revered as bastions of wisdom, churning out one lifelong nugget after another, while grandchildren listened carefully.

There was an inter-generational link which was built.  Even in times of sickness, the family and societal capabilities came to the fore, with each having a responsibility to take care of older persons, or at least render some form of support.

In the past, the family unit was quite strong unlike nowadays.

This writer’s late paternal grandmother-Mbuya Majecha spent most her last days in the custody of her sons and daughters in law. This writer’s mother, who was unemployed then (but however engaging in economic activities), assumed the full time responsibility to take care of grandma, who had been diagnosed of tuberculosis.

So did her sister in laws, with grandma having the privilege of choosing whose house she wanted to go to next. Our society has now changed, women are no longer domiciled to the housewife status, as was the case before and after independence, especially in the 80s and 90s.

While independence came with unprecedented opportunities, these were largely the preserve of males working in light and heavy industries. Formally however, the civil service was no doubt the biggest absorber of women especially, as part of a scheme to equalise opportunities regardless of gender.

While the enjoyment of employment opportunities has positively brought empowerment and relief to man-who were the primary “breadwinners”, it has however disrupted the primary care functions which women ordinarily assumed especially regarding the care for order persons, who were largely resident in rural areas.

In the olden times, the daughter in law needed strong attributes to take care of her mother in law, domiciled in the rural area.  Of course this has largely changed due to the changing social and economic changes which have affected the family’s organisation. 

Then there is the growing informal sector as well. The reorganisation of the economy over the years has greatly led to the “dominance” of the formal sector which employs young people, women and men of various ages.

The unpredictable working hours have cast a spell on the social ties needed in rendering moral and physical support to seniors.  

When this writer’s mother assumed a teaching job later on, she would often assume a care role, upon her return from work.  Today’s typical family now needs to cope up with the demands of surviving in an urban setting.

There is no doubt that this has put severe pressure on young families, some who have sadly abdicated their expected responsibilities.

This pressure has even been stronger especially for young people in the diaspora. While some have lived well to their role as “benefactors”, literally carrying the responsibilities of the entire family on their shoulders at young ages, some have however left their parents (who are older citizens), assuming parental responsibilities for the second if not the third time, with very little support, if any.

There is no doubt that Zimbabwean families can generally relate with such.

In some situations, some older persons have had to assume the burden of taking care of children, especially those orphaned by HIV and AIDS or other such causes accounting for mortality.

While migration has brought a positive contribution especially in terms of sending remittances back at home, which are used for household recurrent expenditure in health, education and other such needs, it has however rattled the organised family unit of the past.  

That the fortunes of our young people have been mixed is however no excuse for the neglect of older persons.  For the greater part of the year, this writer has been staying with his grandfather. Sometime in June, this writer’s mother simply decided to go to Mutoko to pick her father, whose health was severely deteriorating. 

Officially his year of birth is 1918 and obviously has dozens of children with his first wife, now late after having developed schizophrenia in the early 2000s, leading to her death in her seventies.

Her mental breakdown of course emerged after grandpa had taken another wife whom he relocated with within Mutoko.

There is no doubt that old age is generally a time of increased vulnerability with little recourse, even medically. Yet in this time of need, older persons need much support from their families.

Yours truly has gotten to understand old age much, out of the daily interaction with grandpa. 

While my grandfather exhibits some fitness in his age and is able to talk, it is however his bony structure which evidenced his advanced state. Despite having ability to cobble conversations here and there, he is however confounded by some dementia. His skin is extremely tender while his feet are often swollen. A myriad of health problems evidently.

Due to old age, he can’t walk and remains bedridden for the greater part of the day.  While age comes with wisdom, it however comes with so many health challenges especially in advanced years.

Grandpa had a dozen of children with his first wife, most who have now departed leaving behind just two “remaining girls”. Most of his grandchildren are resident in South Africa with few remaining locally.

Only a few grandchildren have bothered to extend their moral and financial support. This has been sad.  There is no doubt that most families can relate with such circumstances, which have inherently depicted the fissures within the traditional family unit.

Evidently, social and economic conditions have brought a bearing on the traditional family structure which now undergoes inadvertent changes brought by the search for opportunities both at home and abroad.

While this search for opportunities has positively contributed towards raising families, it has however led to the weakening of family ties and social care systems which were primarily responsible for the upkeep of older persons, both in times of happiness and need.

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