The elderly are sometimes called unpalatable names, their only sin being their age. In a society where old faces are easily despised, the elderly in the community should be a blessing. The Community of Sant’Egidio’s work is changing society’s perception towards the elderly. As CLIFF KAWANGA writes, the elderly must be embraced.
One is 75 years old, the other cannot remember the year she was born and the last one just laughed it off; perhaps age means nothing for the three elderly people since they started living a new life.
Two years ago, the three were left destitute. The angry rains that wrecked havoc in most parts of the country did not spare the three. The rains had no mercy at all. After the sad experience, mercy had to come from elsewhere, in this case the community of Sant’Egidio in Italy. And then, the foundation was laid at a place where the House of Mercy in Bangwe stands.
“I gave up on life, I thought I had lived my life and I was only waiting for my time. But when this help came, I had more reasons to live again,” says 75-year-old Julio Malikebu, who, in his youth, was an adept carpenter. To prove his old passion, Malikebu shows every visitor a collection of his craft.
“I am now happy because of the volunteers who are caring for us here. They treat us like their own grandparents; they are a source of our happiness here,” he says.
Setting the goals
In 2011, the community of Sant’Egidio took part in training to prepare for the task ahead. Titled ‘Long Live the Elderly’, the training targeted members who were in charge of offering services to the elderly. The training took place in Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Blantyre.
About 100 participants in the three cities, from all the districts where communities are present, attended the training on a monthly basis, focusing on cultural themes, medical (physical and mental aging, diseases associated with aging, lack of self-sufficiency, nutrition among the elderly and blood pressure) and the social problems related to housing and institutionalisation.
The goal of the training was to provide scientific support for the Community of Sant’Egidio in Malawi, which meets older people very often. The motivation has been love for the elderly to help them live.
For a long time, the support mainly focussed on closeness, friendship, care and companionship but the training enriched their existing knowledge with important scientific concepts.
The Community of Sant’Egidio – being close to older people and knowing their stories – was among the first to notice many changes in society which included the crisis of the extended family and the elderly being accused of practicing witchcraft because of their age.
From this awareness, an international conference on the phenomenon of the elderly titled ‘Aging in Africa, Raising Awareness among the Nations’ was held in Malawi in 2010. This cultural awareness recognised the elderly as a blessing to the society.
Salome Chimalizeni, one of the members of the community of Sant’Egidio responsible for the elderly, says friendship and familiarity with poor people are at the centre of the work they do.
“At first, people did not appreciate what we do but now we have reached out to a lot of people in the community who are slowly embracing our work. The time the members dedicate to the elderly is precious; most of the elderly feel lonely if they are not cared for,” she says.
Chimalizeni says most of the elderly people in the community face numerous challenges and it is the responsibility of everyone to change that situation.
“We feel blessed for this opportunity to help the elderly. It is the satisfaction we get from working as volunteers which gives us strength. There is nothing worthwhile than the feeling that you are doing the right thing and making people smile again,” she says.
While debate continues on the need to have centres for the elderly across the country, Chimalizeni says the most important thing right now is that the elderly are part of the communities and that everyone can play a part in caring for them.
“For the work we have done, the message that we send to the community is that a mere visit to the homes of the elderly would mean a lot. This is the spirit that we encourage. Most of the volunteers working in the communities have done a good job already but still more can be done,” she says.
Chimalizeni says, as people grow older, they are not able to carry out activities required for one to lead an independent life.
“The elderly depend on the community to enjoy good life. We cannot ignore their needs by pretending that they do not exist, they are part of us and our actions should show that we care for them,” she says.
Spirit of volunteerism
In a society where volunteerism is yet to be fully embraced, the volunteers’ experience with the elderly is inspiring.
“Apart from supporting the elderly, we have benefitted a lot from their knowledge. The best we can give the elderly is our love and being there for them. The benefits we derive from our service is seeing the elderly smile again,” says volunteer Hope Njima.
To see others smile is the foundation on which the work of Sant’Egidio is built.
This service to the poor people values friendship. The students of 1968, who began gathering around the word of God, felt the gospel could not be lived far from poor people: poor people as friends and the gospel as the good news for poor people.
When the service of the community began, it was called People’s School because, apart from tutoring, it was the beginning of a friendship between the rich and the poor.
“We are committed to serving the poor. Our society would be different if we embraced the spirit of serving others. I am personally satisfied with what I am doing for the elderly,” Njima says.