NAIROBI, Kenya — Phylis Nyambura sits on a plastic chair, pensive and alone in the shade of a tree at Cheshire Home for the Elderly in the Kariobangi slum northeast of Nairobi. She laments how her social life has changed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I’m told it’s a bad disease that kills old people in minutes,” the 80-year-old said in Kikuyu, her native language. “Everyone here is avoiding me. They cannot even allow me to see my daughter and grandson when they come to visit me here. My life has completely changed.”
Nyambura, who arrived at the home four years ago, suffers from dementia and behavioral disabilities to such an extent that they interfere with her daily life and activities.
She has been experiencing increased feelings of confusion, paranoia and delusion during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in more than 4,000 confirmed cases and just over 100 deaths in Kenya, as of June 17.
“I don’t know what’s happening nowadays,” said Nyambura, gasping for breath as she struggles to lean on the chair. “We are told to wash our hands all the time, even when we are not eating. I feel very bad, isolated and confused.”
Run by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, the home once was a hive of activity. Forty elderly men and women reside there, but more than 300 men and women of advanced age would meet their relatives and lifelong friends there during the day. They would share meals and pray together.
But Kenya has adopted strict measures to counter the spread of COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. The government has suspended travel in and out of the country, banned religious and social gatherings, and imposed a nationwide curfew between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m.
In the countrywide fight against the pandemic, the sisters have rolled out a series of strict measures and supportive human services to safeguard the elderly from the virus.
“Strict isolation is the only way to protect these elderly men and women,” said Franciscan Sister Lydia D’sa, administrator of the home. “We have already made changes to provide for social distancing. We told them they could not watch television inside the hall because of space, so they usually watch from outside. Prayers are done outside as well for the sake of distancing.”
D’sa said the staff has been forced to suspend family visits.
“We have advised the elderly who stay outside the home to only visit at least thrice a week to get parcels of food and clothing to take home,” said D’sa, noting that they are not allowed to enter the home and interact with residents. “We understand that they are hungry and need food. Some of them have high blood pressure and need medication.”
D’sa said she holds talking sessions daily with the residents, speaking in soft tones about the effects of the coronavirus and why they should isolate themselves for now. She invites musicians and experts to highlight symptoms and preventive measures that can help combat the spread of the virus. Hand-washing stations have been installed around the compound as tools to fight the virus.
“Many of the elderly here didn’t understand anything about the virus despite watching television,” she said. “We started educating them about the coronavirus and the effect, especially on the elderly. We encouraged them to wash hands frequently and always keep themselves clean or else they will get sick.”
Health experts are warning younger people about carrying the virus unknowingly to their parents and grandparents, saying older people, especially those with preexisting conditions, have a much higher risk of dying from the illness caused by the virus.
According to 2017 population figures, Kenya has about 1.5 million people 60 and older. This demographic is expected to reach 2.5 million people in 2027.
New homes for the elderly across the country cater to the poor elderly and growing number of senior citizens who prefer to spend their sunset years in these facilities rather than stay home alone.
Reginah Maluki, a mental health nurse at the Cheshire Home, said preventing infections is a priority because the virus already has been reported in neighboring slums.
“Every day, I check their health status by measuring temperature, checking their blood pressure, sugar levels for those that are diabetic and also recommend what they should eat and what they shouldn’t.”
However, Maluki warns that social distancing among the elderly could lead to social isolation, already a crisis in the older population. Loneliness, researchers have established, comes with its own set of health risks.
Michael Ndirangu, 75, a resident of the home, is aware of the danger. He has formed a WhatsApp group of friends from neighboring slums to keep in touch during the pandemic. To avoid boredom, he has also urged the home to organize common activities for its residents, like playing chess and bingo, having physical exercises and even short plays and skits while maintaining social distance.
“I feel very lonely and I miss my friends who come from neighboring slums to have a chat and play games,” said Ndirangu, who was taken off the street by sisters in 2000. “We need to engage ourselves so that we don’t feel lonely. It’s very risky to our lives.”
Ajiambo is the Africa and Middle East correspondent for Global Sisters Report.