Voice of the Elderly: Geriatrics in Uganda

Kamusiime Zadok is a social gerontologist and founder of Voice of the Elderly, a community based organization aiming to support older people in the Kabale district of Uganda. He is an expert in health and social policy for older people in Uganda, and the effects of ageism on the welfare of the elderly.shutterstock_129328802

As with any country, there are many older people in Uganda who are still active, healthy and independent. However, those who are frail, or in poor health, lack the social support structures available in the UK and are entirely dependent upon their families for support. This is coupled with limited treatment options for even simple conditions such as cataracts, an almost complete absence of monitoring for chronic conditions such as diabetes or hypertension, and a lack of expertise in geriatric medicine the country.

Voices of the Elderly is a Ugandan Non-Governmental Organisation which aims to improve the state of the elderly in Kabale, South-West Uganda. It is registered at district level, was recently endorsed by the Ugandan Minister of Health, and is an official project partner of Afrinspire, a Cambridge-based international development charity aiming to catalyse sustainable, community-led projects across East Africa. More information can be found on the Afrinspire Website.

Key health challenges the elderly here face are the following:

  • Mobility Problems: Impaired balance, weaker muscles and altered posture are particularly challenging in the Ugandan setting. The mountainous terrain is treacherous, particularly without mobility aids, and toileting is extremely challenging as Ugandans typically squat on pit latrines (holes in the ground). We are attempting to provide low-cost, effective solutions such as raised bricks on the pit latrines, and locally-sourced wooden commodes, so that the elderly can sit instead of squatting, however even these are prohibitively expensive for many.
  • Dietary needs: Most Ugandans lack a secure food supply and balanced varied diet. As Ugandans age, many local foods, especially root vegetables such as sweet potato, and maize, a staple in the Ugandan diet, become indigestible or difficult to digest and cause them discomfort.
  • Housing: Some older people do not have adequate housing. Inadequate shelter and sharing homes with animals directly influences their health status through poor hygiene.
  • Social: Some elders are socially isolated due to urbanization which has taken their offspring to live and work in towns. The traditional extended family is gradually weakening due to modernization and urbanization, often leaving the elderly without any support in the rural areas. We have tried to target this and tackle loneliness by bringing older people together so that they can share experiences and engage in social activities like walks, craft making and story-telling.
  • Emotional Challenges and Depression: Many older people in Uganda suffer from chronic, untreated low esteem and low mood because they have lost partners, friends and children. Ageism and prejudice are widespread and contribute to these issues by reinforcing low status.
  • Personal safety: Older Ugandans are physically vulnerable and at risk of attacks from neighbours who want to snatch their property. Until recently geronticide was commonly practised in many tribes, and even today in some areas older people fear that their children and grandchildren will kill them for land, domestic animals and their other possessions.

Voices of the Elderly has been tackling these challenges in a number of ways. We have encouraged the formation of elderly groups in different areas, widened the network by involving Kabale district leadership and conducted community outreach into rural communities. We have also advocated for increased funding, attention and support for the elderly by working directly with church and government leadership, and raised awareness by conducting radio talk shows on the local radio, Voice of Kigezi, where around 21 million people from Uganda and neighbouring countries of Rwanda and Tanzania listen in and call in to contribute and/or ask questions. In addition we have held a number of events to bring the network together, including themed workshops and a celebration of the International day of Older Persons.

We are currently raising funds to provide a revolving equipment store of commodes, wheelchairs and similar items to support the elderly, to enable some of our executive committee to undertake specialty training in geriatric medicine, and to develop the first ever Ugandan Day Care centre, facilitating and empowering older people to support one another in combating the challenges that they face. We would welcome any ideas, advice or support in this venture. Please find more details of our current projects, photos and the opportunity to donate here.

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