Getting older opens a whole set of unfamiliar issues and discussions. I used to worry about my older relatives. Now that I’m turning 66, the concerns that I had for them are the same that I have for myself. It’s funny how our lives shift in just a few decades.
Things that cross my mind are: Will I outlive my money, what will my long-term needs be and do I have to move in with one of my children? I wonder apprehensively, “Which of my children’s homes will I move into in my “elder” years?” Oh, sure, I’m African and where I come from, family members are primarily responsible for providing care and support to older adults. This dependence is a reciprocated act, and one related to an African adage that roughly translates to: “Because you [i.e., one’s older parent] have taken care of me [the child] to grow teeth, I will take care of you until your teeth fall out”.
But there’s a big difference between our parents’ older years and ours. I live alone without a spouse or children, and I have no intention of moving into any of my children’s homes; my late husband had made sure of that. He had invested greatly in real estate. Losing Badu; my husband four years ago left an irreplaceable void in my life that I am still working out how to fill. He suffered from a chronic kidney disease. I was his carer for over ten years, as he slowly declined from the degenerative condition. I was his nurse, driver, carer, cook and “bottle-washer”. I got used to people always asking after my husband and forgetting about me. “You are almost invisible … you kind of go in the shadows as the carer.” It took me almost four years to move on. And I suddenly woke up one day and thought, “C’mon, you are letting your life fade away, Badu would want you to live a fulfilled life even without him. So, I decided to pick up the pieces of my life. I know that if I plan wisely, there is a chance that I will be able to afford long-term health care and care insurance in my elder years. I know that it was time to put my retirement plan in place, but first I needed to explore how I wanted to live later on, because if I wait until I need help or want more companionship, it may be too late to find a solution.
As I figured out how I want to live, I’m making changes.
The value of an intergenerational support system
Badu and I were blessed with three lovely children. All of them have young and growing families. I have seven grandchildren and two are on the way. My grandchildren have always been a big part of my life, and I appreciate their energy and I enjoy spending time with them. I can easily get set in my ways if I don’t try to do new things. Since my grandchildren are always into the latest trends and gadgets, I can bet I always learn something new each time they visit. From trying out a new type of food to listening to a different type of music, my grandchildren shake me up from any rigid routine so I’m never accused of being stodgy. Having access to their influence has changed my life. And that’s what inspired me to age with a purpose. Before Badu got his diagnosis, we bought a semi-detached duplex in a housing estate in the Garden City which tended to be an idyllic slice of our seemingly perfect life. Well-maintained gardens and nature strips, orderly organisation of waste removal and road and grounds maintenance, residents representing all the age brackets from babies to grandparents, ensuring everyone has someone to talk to and reach out to for help when needed.
However, as an ageing adult, I needed to move into a smaller space for convenience, comfort and safety. I had also decided to take on the challenge to maximize the good parts of getting older while taking proactive steps to help others like me maintain their health and live a happier and more fulfilling life. Hence, I began to look for age-friendly communities that would help foster an environment to keep in mind the concerns and holistic well-being of people in my age bracket. A community that respects its elders and believes that they have an equal share and opinion in living their lives. A community whose quality of life is primarily determined by its active participation and catering to the security needs of the elderly.
After a year of searching, I found a community that offered a range of activities for all generations to enjoy. From culture and history to rich clean rainforest air, there was something for everyone.
It was surprising that this town had never been revealed as an age-friendly location in my country. It scores well in many well-being factors that are crucial at all ages in life. With a low crime rate – 41% below the national average – strong transport links to major cities in my country – a few hours from the state capital and an affordable cost of living, there are plenty of perks of living in for every generation.
After much deliberation, I bought a detached bungalow in Bomso, where I knew no one else except a younger cousin who was born and raised in the area, it never occurred to me just how involved I’d become with the people who lived here. It was a small Akan community, and many of the residents were elderly like me. The estate manager was my cousin, a very honest and empathetic young man. He was involved with programs that included students from the high school. Through my encouragement, he was willing to help design and sponsor local intergenerational programs.
Creating intergenerational engagements
The teenagers in the community were occupied. It was the older generations that I was worried about because they were mostly inaccessible. I know it’s because they don’t want to be a bother, but I think they spend too much time alone, and that’s not healthy for anyone. So my cousin and I hoped to remedy the generational divide. Trust me; it’s as much for me as it is for them.
Intergenerational connections make magic, and that begins with activities. Since in our culture, people tend to gravitate to isolation and impersonal “tech” networks, my cousin and I plan to create approaches that address pressing community needs. We envision older adults tutoring children in the three popular variations of Twi language; Akuapim Twi, Fante Twi and Ashanti Twi. In return, the younger people will help seniors learn to surf the web and connect with family long-distance via Skype. Both generations can share a meal cooked by all, and we also plan to encourage movement and music. Whatever the activity — from photography, cooking and tutoring, to shopping on the web — it was the dialogue that was crucial. We encouraged question-asking, discussions about similarities and differences, and the sharing of stories about what each generation has learned from this experience of intergenerational exchange. By having these conversations, we hope to loosen the grip of ageism.
As Africa ages, the increasing numbers of older people will put pressure on the government and social services. To effectively address the gaps in caring for an ageing society, African governments must support the cohesive development of long-term care systems. While the tradition of relying on extended family to care for older adults should be respected, governments and community organizations need to consider ways to ease the burden with new policies and programs. Taking time to assess the unique needs of individual African countries and remembering to pay particular attention to the health and economic needs of older adults will help provide a path forward.
Additionally, all efforts should include the long-term vision for the future that today’s youth will eventually age and need care. It is also time to tap into the power and potential of neighbours to help support and care for older people, while seniors contribute by helping young families. Together we can make it better for everyone.