The Tragedy of the Homeless Elderly
Ethiopians are well known for respecting and caring for their elders. Many have worked their entire lives and have given their time, energy and money to their country. However, when the time comes for them to retire, the truth arrives and they are often all cashed out. More elders in Addis Ababa are aging into homelessness, unable to afford rising rents and getting less access to healthcare at a time when they need it the most. As people age, their health and their capacity to work deteriorates. Difficulty seeing, moving and hearing makes them vulnerable. This often leads them to be exposed to all the ills and evils of the streets.
In Ethiopia most elderly people are unable to cover their living expenses, let alone take care of their health. If they are lucky they will have family to care for them. However, the unlucky ones end up in the streets, often in urban areas. Despite the challenges, many elderly support their grandchildren who have lost their parents with HIV/AIDs or any other problems.
Even if they are capable of working or are pensioners, they will get inadequate income for living expenses. Usually elderly people are able to support themselves if they have a fixed asset like a house to rent, land to till, or savings. Otherwise they need to have family members to help them out.
In places like Addis it is very common to see elderly people that have migrated from rural areas, begging. We are accustomed to seeing elderly people congregating at busy city corners, around Churches and Mosques, hoping for meagre alms. They are exposed to the heat of the day and the cold of the night. They are hungry, thirsty, sick, dirty, mocked at by children and abused by heartless criminals.
Though there has been no data compiled on the homeless elderly population in Ethiopia, it is known that there are few shelter homes for them and it is easy to observe many of them in public areas. According to the World Health Organization, people above the age of 60 are considered to be elders. In Ethiopia, 60 is also the age where people qualify for pensions and other welfare benefits.
The support given to elderly people either by governmental institutions or other non-governmental humanitarian organizations is very limited. Many countries in the world reach their elders through a public welfare package programme. But in Ethiopia the packages are on a contribution basis and are limited only to public servants, the police force and members of the military. And about 75 Pct of the pensioners receive ETB 300 to 400 on a monthly basis. The government has no other support package especially for the homeless, other than the pension programs which are meant for specific social groups. They do have three shelter homes in the country
Bethe-Selihom, in Debre Libanose, a small village in northern Showa, is one of the pioneering homes for elderly people. Founded in 1912 by Etege (Queen) Taitu, the institution was enhanced and given its current name by Prince Ras Teferi Mekonnen in 1921. Ethiopia’s two other shelters for homeless elderly people were built in the 1940s and 196os, at Kaliti in Addis Ababa and Harar (Abrha Beata).
All the three homes for elderly are still functioning. The federal government was responsible for the centres until 1991. From 1992 onward the regional governments took the responsibility. Currently, one of the centres located in Akaki Kality District accommodates up to 400 destitute elders. An additional two centres for the elderly are under construction by the government, according to Ayichew Agegnehu, an expert at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA).
“We plan for the institutions to provide various services like creating opportunities for people, who can, to work,” he said.
Ayichew told EBR that the Ministry of Education is preparing a curriculum for social workers at the technical and vocational level. And those graduates will provide practical services to vulnerable populations including elders. In addition to social work, nursing is another service that will be provided.
One of the challenges with trying to help the elderly is that there are many stakeholders involved. This makes it difficult to do things in a centralized manner, according to Ayichew. The MoLSA currently heads a forum involving all sectors and follows up with the federal action plan on elders.
“The mandate of MoLSA is to develop policy and legal frameworks to help vulnerable populations of society, including elderly. Implementing the policy is the responsibility of regional governments,” said Ayichew.
The Addis Ababa City Government is also working with elderly through NGOs and civil society organizations. They provide training, consultation and technical support.
According to the data from Federal Charity & Civil Society Agency, there are six local charity organizations registered in Addis Ababa and out of these three of them provide shelter for the elderly.
The Addis Ababa City government is trying to help elderly at the Wereda level by establishing a social committee made up of charities and NGOs to create awareness, said, Kamil Ahmed, social welfare consultant at the Addis Ababa City Government.
“Workers of the Addis Ababa Bureau of Labour & Social Affairs Office are currently knocking on the doors of the city’s destitute elderly to help them.”
The MoLSA, on the other hand, has prepared a new National Social Protection Policy and it is waiting for its approval. This policy is different from the previous social welfare policy since that program treated social welfare as a charity. However, the new policy states that access to social welfare is a constitutional right. According to Kamil the Addis Ababa City Government allocates five to nine million Birr annually for the elderly.
The widely publicized fund raising event organized by the Mekedonia Home for Elderly and Mentally Disabled, on December 22, 2013 at the Global Hotel was one positive step in the right direction.
Established in 2011 with 30 elderly and mentally ill people, Mekedonia Home now provides shelter, food and medical access for close to 300 elderly. In addition, 1,000 destitute elderly people are expected to join the centre within a year.
At the event, where close to 1,500 people participated, the organization managed to collect a little more than three million birr. Organizers showed a documentary film depicting the misery many elderly people in Ethiopia face and viewers seemed to be emotionally touched by what they saw.
“The deeds of Mekedonia, a young man who previously lived in the United States took some 300 homeless elderly and mentally disabled people that we usually ignore and pass on the streets to his parents’ home and gave them everything to meet their basic needs. This shows a new image for all Ethiopians,” Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, a well known critic posted on a social media site. “I haven’t seen a crowd of this number for a mission of this kind except for a music extravaganza or a government’s summons,” he continued.
At the fund raising observance stakeholders stress that the government should help voluntary organizations like Mekedonia to give support and protect the right of the elderly since the government has a limited capacity to reach everyone. Since this is a social issue not only government but the society itself also should play a role in alleviating the miseries of those who have paid everything they could for their country. EBR
2nd Year • January 2014 • No 11