""As the evening twilight fades away, the sky is filled with stars invisible by day" are the immortal words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Alas! this does not hold ground for many people in countries of Asia Pacific (and maybe elsewhere too). The elderly are getting pushed more into a dark night devoid of stars.
The erosion of traditional livelihoods and family support, along with weak health systems, is simply increasing their vulnerability. Old age means different things to different people. The quality of the sunset years is influenced by factors like economic security, social support, literacy, gender and one's own mindset and thinking. While, as the modern saying goes, life might be beginning at 60-65 for some, for many it starts fading painfully at this juncture.
Mrs Mac Thi Mua, is one such elderly people who lives in Luu Ha village in Kinh Mon district of Hai Duong Province, Vietnam. I met her in her modest two-roomed house and was instantly struck by her beauty. The wrinkles on her 88 years old face and her indigent situation had failed to wipe the twinkle in her eyes. Seated on a mosquito-net fitted bed with a wheel chair kept close by, her sad but lovely demeanour spoke a thousand words.
"Son lost to lung cancer..."
Mua lost her son in 2006 to lung cancer. Her two married daughters live far away and are not in a position to take care of her. Mua was doomed to live alone, with her failing health and abject penury, in her twilight years. To top it all, last year she broke her femur bone due to a fall and has since been almost immobile - confined to her bed and to her wheel chair.
A ray of hope when it was getting dark...
But 3 years ago, a stroke of luck brought her in contact with an Intergenerational Self-Help Club (ISHC) operating in her district. Since then, her life changed for the better. While her own kin have left her, two volunteers (Nguyen Thi Phong and Vu Thu Thu) of the club, living in her neighbourhood, have taken it upon themselves to fill her dark night with some stars.
These two volunteers have enough work on their hands of tending to their paddy fields. Yet they manage to find time to look after the old lady. Every day they bring milk and cooked meals for her; feed her; bathe her and clean the house - it was spick and span. Earlier, they would visit her once a week, to help her with her weekly chores. But since her fall, one or the other is with her for almost the entire day. They take turns to stay with her at night.
Mua cannot go out but can move around inside the house when put on the wheel chair. She has no income of her own. The volunteers take care of her food. Some money has been collected by the club members to support her. The nurse from community healthcare facility comes to her house for the monthly checkups. Her eyesight is failing and her hearing is impaired. But her mental faculties are very alert and her spirits are high. She thanked us for coming to visit her and apologised for not being able to entertain us as her guests. Mua's situation aptly describes the Vietnamese saying that neighbours help when families fail to do so.