Ageing: it is not about them but all of us

I realized that I did not take care of my mother. Even when I saw that she would not survive, I still went back to South Africa yet she needed care giving. She wished me happy birthday before she died.

Ms Wanjiku Kairu is the founder and CEO of Purity Elderly Care Foundation, an organization that cares for the elderly. She spoke to NBM’s Jacob Oketch about what inspired her to establish the organization, her goals and objectives, challenges and the milestones she envisages for the organization. In her own words…

I founded Purity Elderly Care Foundation in honour of my late mother Purity Wanjiru who succumbed to colon cancer in 2010. My late dad Herman Kairu who succumbed to Gastro Intestinal Stromol Tumor cancer in 2018 was the patron of Purity elderly Care Foundation (PECF). We now have a new patron, Dr. Caroline Wanjiru Karugu. 

I realized that I did not take care of my mother. I had been working in South Africa as a project manager since 1997. Even when I saw that my mother would not survive, I still went back to South Africa yet she needed care giving and medical care. She wished me happy birthday before she died.

I am the fourth born in a family of seven. My bond with my parents was very strong. In June 2010, after burying my mum, I went back to South Africa. It was the World Cup season and it was taking place there, so there was a lot of excitement. I did not reflect back on what had happened to me because I was fully immersed in the euphoria that was occasioned by the global soccer extravaganza in South Africa.

After the tournament, it then hit me that I had lost my beloved mum. I started hallucinating to the extent that I was sent to a shrink by my employer. I started drinking and writing about what was happening to me. It was bothering me. I told my employer that I needed to start working with the old people. I then started doing so in South Africa. I went to Soweto to see a few old people.

God told me I was to go back home in Kenya but I resisted it. One morning in the year 2011, I did a whole six months appraisal and projection of my work and I told my employer about it. On May 24, 2011, I was jogging in SA when a fellow jogger was hit by a car and died instantly. After the police came to the scene, I jogged back to my apartment and then passed out. I realized that something was not right. A voice asked me “If it was you who was hit by that car, have you done what you were called to do on this earth?”

I came back to Kenya and consulted my dad. I went to Korogocho with my niece. I then went back to Nyeri and approached the District Development Committee who approved what I call my “madness”- my proposal to care for the elderly. I started working with the chief and his assistants. The reception was not good. Something happened. I had an accident though I had planned a party for the elderly. People thought it could not go on. I mobilized old people all over the area. There was the talk that I wanted to make money from the old people. My family, let alone the society, judged me when I took the calling seriously. They still do not understand me but it is me who understands me. It is my calling.

To those who would want to get into caring for the elderly, learn to be humble. Do what you believe is right. There will be rejection, ridicule and lack of resources

I wrote to the media about my mission. My dad was opposed to my project and said that I should be doing better things than working with the old people. More than 200 people attended the party and that was my beakthrough. Eventually, the project was adopted by the community.

I have been literally begging for help for the elderly. I would go anywhere and everywhere seeking assistance. I would go to touts and timber shops. I would go to supermarkets to ask for diapers. I have two nicknames; “Wanjiku waandu akuru”, loosely translating to, wanjiku of the elderly and “Wanjiku kahoi” loosely translating to, the professional beggar.

We advocate, champion and lobby for the rights of older persons, especially the ones suffering from marginalization, stigma and loneliness. There are elderly people left with orphans. There is substance abuse among the elderly people. I am a firm believer in compassion for humanity with humility and dignity. Our slogan in the organization is dignity to the old. I constantly tell people about these three words – humanity, humility and dignity.

Because I started doing humanitarian work while I was still in South Africa, it was not difficult for me to reach out to the elderly in poor areas here in Kenya. I was the project manager of a Foundation. I was driving big cars in South Africa but I was still caring for humanity so it was easy to get to the bottom here. During winter while driving to work, I would feed street families in Sandton by distributing to them mandazis that I used to prepare at home. My dad was so proud of me when I got awards for what I was doing. So far, I have received four awards in recognition of my work. I received a special Commendation Award from the Global Ageing Network in 2017 which I went to receive in Montreux, Switzerland.

People have come to appreciate what I am doing. I have been featured a lot on television and the media in general. Infact, the media has immensely contributed to the success of what I am doing. Nonetheless, I face various challenges in my quest to see that the elderly are taken care of. I have faced rejection severally. There is stereotyping of the older folk. Some people also say that I am asking for money for personal gain. I have contracted diseases in the course of my work. I have had jiggers and Tuberculosis. The TB came as a result of visiting a home where an old man had it. I had pneumonia so this exposed me to TB. I have been beaten and insulted by family members who thought that I was washing their dirty linen in public.

Regarding the issue of cash for the old, my view is that the national government’s focus on the elderly has been artificial despite the fact that the President directed the implementation of the “Inua jamii 70-plus”. The ministry responsible is failing the President. Every day, every year, people get to be 70 years old but they are not registered. I have challenged the ministry, written to them but they view me as a threat. I have lobbied a lot about the cash.

I have done certain practical things to better the old lot. In Nyeri County, the law courts stairs have 72 steps. The elderly go there for succession cases, others for matters to do with inheritance. To subject these elderly people to climbing the said stairs is some sort of punishment to them. I wrote to the judiciary about this and the lifts were introduced. I am very vocal. Some institutions do not like me very much but I work closely with them. We compliment family efforts in taking care of the old.

We do hold international events. On June 15, we observe the World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. We have been doing peaceful walks. Last year, we issued a memorandum asking the Nyeri County to be the first to champion and advocate the rights of the elderly. October 1 is the UN International Day for Older Persons and we usually take part, On December 31, we usher in the New Year in style with the elderly.

I tap a lot into the wisdom of the elderly people, being with them and listening to their stories. Some elderly people also support us financially. They encourage me because they understand issues affecting the elderly.

Although I believe in an array of influencers across the world, my role model in my journey at the moment is Eliud Kipchoge, the first human being to run the marathon in under 2 hours. This is mainly because of his mantra-no human is limited. So many people doubted his efforts. I believed in him. I knelt down and prayed for him. The same way, many people thought I could not make it. The negative energy was so much but in the end, I prevailed.

To those who would want to get into caring for the elderly, learn to be humble. Do what you believe is right. There will be rejection, ridicule and lack of resources. I am a go- getter. I don’t stop at anything until I achieve what I want. My character works for me. I shine in the middle of people. You need to have people relationship. You need to network widely to be able to do this work effectively. As long as you are in this world, you were born by someone and that someone deserves to be treated with dignity.

The plight of the elderly is a global phenomenon. We started this initiative in Nyeri County but now we have gone national. We have opened an office in Nairobi. We will be launching nationally. We have a structure and we have a patron. We are now not hand to mouth. We need support in kind and cash. When we get donations, we carry them on our back because we do not have a means of transport, even to take the sick to the hospital. We are planning to put up a home for the elderly. We also recommend that each county put up a home for the elderly.

We work with care givers. The ministry of Interior is our key partner. I have a letter from the ministry of interior that enables me to operate smoothly in areas that we operate in. We also work with families and community health volunteers. I work with people who have a heart of humanity. I want to leave this organization in strong position to save humanity. We need to have a logical framework. Currently, we are restrategizing. We are asking families to stop neglecting the elderly. This kind of behavior should be punished. There are communities where people kill the elderly. I remind people that we are all ageing so it is not about them; it is about all of us.   

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