Whenever we say we work with elderly people, the first question normally is, “what do you do for them?”
The notion many people have of elderly people is that they are of advanced age and as such vulnerable and in need of the society to support them. As this may be true, the question we should be asking ourselves is, “what can we benefit from them?”
Life is a lesson. We learn from birth and throughout our lifetime. Each day is a lesson covered. The more days you live on earth the more lessons you learn. That being so, our elderly parents have definitely learnt much more about life than we do. They may not be technologically savvy because technology is a factor of modernity and not a measure of wisdom or knowledge. Even doctors cannot construct roads.
During one of our discussions with elders, Mama Emma Chemtai of the Sabaot community told us that an elderly person has the kind of patience and wisdom to resolve disputes in a way that a younger person would not. They do not get overwhelmed with issues. When there is a crisis in a family, the elderly person will most likely be the calm one giving pieces of advice. They do not rush into conclusion. They are most likely be the ones to say, “Let’s all take a break and come back to this later”. Elders provide a voice of reason. This is bred over time due to accumulated experience – having seen some of these things before.
During this COVID-19 pandemic, we are all worried about when it will come to an end because we want to go back to work. We question the origin of the virus and seek rapid solutions. We say the elderly are the most vulnerable and we should protect them. Yes, they are and we should ensure we do not endanger their lives. Their immunity is weaker than ours. However, that does not mean that they are the most anxious about the situation. In our discussions with some of the elders from Western Kenya, they said that what we are seeing today is not new. They have witnessed similar pandemics before in their lifetime. During the outbreak of smallpox in the early 1900s, people were quarantined, they stayed indoors, kept social distance and used herbs and food to boost their immunity. All that we are trying to do today, has been done before. As we seek to protect the elderly from the pandemic, we should not forget to listen to their story as to how they dealt with a similar outbreak before.
Many people are now talking about healthy foods, plant medicine that relieves flu symptoms, among other things. Many communities have plants and food which they use to keep healthy and cure various illnesses. The custodians of this kind of knowledge are the elderly and we must therefore learn from them.
At TICAH, we also work with elders who play traditional instruments. The skill of making the instrument, the message in the songs and the context within which they are performed carry a lot of our cultural heritage. We risk losing all this part of our cultural heritage if we do not stay close to our elderly parents and learn from them.
From another perspective, we should never forget that we will also be elderly at some point in our lives. How we treat our elderly parents today shows our children how they should treat us when we become elderly.
At TICAH, we cherish the knowledge and wisdom from our elders and we create safe spaces for them to share this with other generations. Everyone desires to be heard. Elderly people deserve it more because they are the custodians of our cultural heritage. We hold regular gatherings of elders from different communities to allow them to share and learn from each other. Learn the diversity of cultural expressions and build harmony among different cultural groups and communities in Kenya. We also provide an opportunity for discussions between the elderly and the youth because both groups have something to learn from each other. As they say, a people that forget their past have no future.
Here is a link to a short video of our Elders Circle on YouTube: