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. With an effortless click, Nyambura shoots a jet of saliva through the gap between her two front teeth, before she begins to lament 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 (loss of cognitive functioning) and behavioral disabilities to such an extent that it interferes 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 2,862 cases, 85 deaths and 849 recoveries, as of June 9 in Kenya, according to Worldometers, a reference website that provides counters and real-time statistics for diverse topics.
“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.”
The home, run by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters for Africa, used to be a hive of activity. More than 300 men and women of advanced age would meet their relatives and lifelong friends every day. They would share meals and pray together.
But the place is now empty since 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.
This is because the new disease presents specific risks for older people. Preliminary research from the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, based on more than 44,000 cases of COVID-19, showed a mortality rate of 2.3% for the general population, rising to 8% in those aged 70 to 79 and nearly 15% in those 80 and over.
“Strict isolation is the only way to protect these elderly men and women,” said Sr. Lydia D’sa, who is the 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.”
The home was built in 1980 with the help of HelpAge International to cater for the destitute and homeless elderly members of society. In recent years, however, the home has come under pressure from those who have families but want to be admitted.
Currently, the home is a permanent residence for 40 elderly men and women and has a day care program for about 300 people from the neighboring slum areas, mostly suffering from leprosy, post-polio paralysis and blindness. It provides a two-pronged care program: Those who are weak and feeble who require nursing care reside in the home and those who capable of carrying out their daily personal care taking part of the day care program.