Vaccination of the elderly has been under the spotlight but as the world commemorated the International Day for Older Persons on Friday (October 1), has Sri Lanka with its rapidly ageing population turned a strong focus on the well-being of this voiceless group during these trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic? As the pandemic, unprecedented [...]


Facing a pandemic in the evening of their lives

October 1 was World elders’ day

Lockdown celebration: Knife poised, Placida ready to cut her 99th birthday cake

Vaccination of the elderly has been under the spotlight but as the world commemorated the International Day for Older Persons on Friday (October 1), has Sri Lanka with its rapidly ageing population turned a strong focus on the well-being of this voiceless group during these trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic?

As the pandemic, unprecedented in our times, continues its trajectory leaving disease and death behind, without a hint of abatement more than 1½ years after, we peeped into the lives of the elderly.

Some of the elderly are in their own homes with close family, carers or all alone, while others are in homes run by different organizations, either as paying members or living on charity.

In Mattakkuliya, English teacher Placida Fernando celebrated her landmark 99th birthday on September 18 in her home. There was a single tall candle, her two daughters, Kusum and Pavithri, and her beloved pets by her side as she cut the cake, while other kith and kin not only in Sri Lanka but also abroad, friends and all those children whom she had taught at Good Shepherd Convent, Kotahena, called or came on Zoom to say happy birthday. Oh so long ago, she had been ‘Lady Speaker’ on all UNP platforms.

She misses her former life before the pandemic, when she would step into the garden to be greeted by neighbours, children would walk into her home for a little English tuition and she herself would go to the adjoining church and sing lustily all those haunting hymns.

“Life changed drastically for her with the pandemic,” says daughter Kusum who gave up much of her work to be with her mother along with her sister for they were compelled to stop the daily domestic help who came in to do the housework for fear of the deadly infection being brought in.

Their home is on 20 perches and it looks like Sinharaja now, laughs Kusum, turning serious when she recalls the challenges they have been facing. They had a hard time when their mother caught a chill and was very ill, with no transport during the lockdown and ambulances refused to take her to a private hospital.

A frantic round of calls and luckily they found a General Practitioner who readily agreed to do home visits until Placida recovered.

A heart-wrencher for Placida was when her shadow, the pet black Labrador Miss Ebony died. She now finds solace with another Labrador Ginny and addition Sherry, a Lab-Alsatian cross.

The rare joys in her life had been when her grand-niece tied the knot and though she was unable to take part in the muted celebrations, the couple dropped in to take a photograph with her.

Family ties: Hasan with daughter Raheeda and son Rifkan

Some others have not fared so well and we hear of an elderly couple who had to live apart because the wife needed medical care in Colombo. When she died of COVID-19 at the height of the pandemic, the husband who was living out of Colombo had been heartbroken because no one would agree to bring him to Colombo even after payment of money to look at her beloved face one last time and bid a final goodbye.

Another couple in their 70s in Kohuwela are counting the months when they would be able to visit their only daughter in Australia as they usually did annually. Now, having to contend with the reality of the Empty Nest Syndrome more than ever before, they make do with FaceTime with their grandson.

“The inability to chat, joke and laugh. The loss of physical interaction, is what I miss most,” says an 85-year-old who lives in bustling Borella with her help whom she considers to be her only family.

Having spent her childhood in their home down Cotta Road, watching from the verandah the different brands of cars and cricketers passing by to the Oval or well-known artistes on their way to the Broadcasting Corporation, “seeing people makes my day even now”, she says……a simple pleasure taken away in recent times.

“The isolation, being cut away is the worst part,” she says, adding with regret that it feels like living marooned on an island. Contented with basic food and living frugally on her pension like many friends whom she refers to as the “old lot”, she longs for the ring of the postman, even if he is just delivering a bank statement.

“When the country faced terrible natural hazards such as cyclones, floods or a tsunami, we could open our homes to other people or help the affected in some way, but now we have to shut out people from our homes and our lives,” she murmurs with regret, yearning for company.

Living with her sister in a comfortable home for which they pay a tidy sum, another says that what upset her was the curtailment of her monthly visit, something she looked forward to very much, to the bank to collect her pension.

In Nawala, Hasan who has turned 90 is being looked after by his daughter. Crossing the seas, all the way from Canada, Raheeda had returned four years ago to care for him and his wife. When her mother passed away and the pandemic engulfed the world, Raheeda had decided to stay back, for he needed her more as he was very feeble.

“It’s my responsibility to look after him,” is Raheeda’s logic and thinking out of the box on how to be self-sufficient, she has launched a home business.

She plans her day carefully, lovingly giving Hasan his breakfast and lunch, chatting and attending to all his needs including ensuring that he takes his medicine and then from about 1.30-6 p.m. she engages in making fudge – vanilla, chocolate and strawberries & cream. After that, it’s dinner with her Dad.

When one day the world reaches some kind of normalcy, Raheeda plans to “go see her two boys” (grown up sons) in Canada and keep shuttling back and forth between the two countries so that Hasan is not alone.

Up in Kandy, Dr. Sextus Corea, 89, and tech savvy, spends the day surfing the net to get the latest news (as newspapers are not being delivered yet), follow dramas or short stories, listen to music and also keep in constant touch with his two sons and grandsons in Australia.

“My movement was restricted even before the pandemic after a knee injury but now I don’t get about at all,” he says, adding that he lives in his home and has two carers, one for the day and one for the night, who live in a separate section.

His friends order the groceries for him and even though they used to meet before the pandemic, there are no such get-togethers now, even though they were limited.

“We can’t go out for fear of catching COVID-19 and we can’t let people into our homes for fear of the virus being brought in,” says Dr. Corea as he looks forward to a promise made by one son – that soon, very soon, he would fly back from Australia to visit him.

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