By David Chidende
"It was painful watching my daughter dying slowly begging me to look after her children when she passes on," said ambuya Mtombeni.
Three decades after the first clinical evidence of AIDS was reported, the pandemic has become one of the most devastating disease humankind has ever faced. While most of its victims are young adults, the virus has major consequences on older people as well. HIV/AIDS related deaths have increased over the years resulting in family breakdowns and an increase of child headed families.
Ambuya Mtombeni (78) felt saddened after the loss of her only daughter Tavonga to HIV/AIDS. Having invested so much in the education of her daughter like any other parent, she obviously anticipated a better life ahead.
In the middle of anticipation the news of her daughter's status trickled in her ears and that was the end of it all. Mtombeni failed to accept her daughter's condition and this contributed to Tavonga's early death, leaving behind three children.
Ambuya Mtombeni who lives in Mabvuku looks after three children, two of school-going age and the youngest still in crèche.
"I am not getting any help to fend for my grandchildren. I struggle everyday to put food on the table and make sure that these children get a decent education and medication among other things," she added.
Mtombeni's case is typical of numerous such experiences in Zimbabwe. Older persons now carry the burden of ensuring that the orphaned children eat, go to school and find something warm to put on during winter.
The burden is overwhelming considering the ages of most caregivers.
The HIV/ AIDS pandemic is seriously ravaging families and this has seen a rise in households where the elderly are either taking care of orphans or are nursing the sick.
In times when they need support and care from their children and grandchildren, the elderly are caring for others and in most cases without even the basic necessary resources.
UNICEF /Help Age International (2007) statistics estimates that up to two thirds of people living with HIV and AIDS are cared for by parents in their 60`s and 70`s.
The statistics also estimate that at least 40- 60% of the Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) are under the care of older persons with an average of 3 OVC per household.
This poses a greater challenge to the older persons as lack of economic, social and psychological support from the government and other players combined with poor access to health services constantly restrict their ability to provide the care as expected of them.
A visit by this reporter to Checheche Growth Point, Chipinge revealed some appalling experiences older persons are made to live under due to the pandemic. They are left to provide care and support for the bed-ridden and the orphans from an empty plate.
Esther Kumbula (82) could not hide her sorrow which was written all over her face as she sadly narrated her ordeal.
"I try to be strong for these children, as I am the only one they have, but I worry about what will happen to them if I am to die today," she said.
Ambuya Kumbula lives in Checheche Growth Point with her three grandchildren whose mother died of HIV/AIDS-related illness. The children are aged 2, 5 and 7.
At a stage in life when Kumbula needs care from someone, it is unfortunate that she finds herself bathing and cooking for her young grandchildren.
"I depend on the generosity of my neighbours who provide clothing and food for the children, but still that is not enough as they need to go school among other things," she added.
Recurrent droughts, coupled with old age have forced Ambuya Kumbula to shelve farming. She now survives from making cheap floor cobra from chibuku scud tops which her grandchildren then sell in the location.
"If people do not buy this cobra, there is no food on the table," she said.
Kumbula spoke with unconcealed emotion, relaying a life that has been punctuated with untold tragedy.
Ambuya Kumbula appealed to the government to assist with grants and even food to ease the suffering they are currently experiencing.
Help Age Zimbabwe, a non governmental organisation is helping older people in Zvishavane rural where the organization is assisting those aged 60 and above with agricultural inputs, building toilets and boreholes. The organisation is also giving monthly cash transfers to those who are 80 years and above as a social protection effort.
Conrad Gweru, the Advocacy and Communications officer for Help Age said the elderly have contributed immensely to caring for people living with HIV/AIDS, be they orphans or relatives.
He however said the old aged are going through difficult and traumatic times due to the current economic recession the country is going through.
"Older people remain the poorest members of society with little or no income to sustain the daily material needs of the sick, orphans and own needs. Some societies generally regard old age as a burden resulting in neglect and little or no attention to their needs," Gweru said.
Help Age Director, Priscilla Gavi said there is need for the country's policies to recognize the caring roles of older persons as this will help alleviate their problems.
She however attributed lack of data on the elderly people as a major drawback in appreciating their needs.
"There is need for the government and other stakeholders to recognize the efforts of the elderly and there should be a clause in the country's constitution that respects the values of the aging population,"
"This policy issue is a serious one if we want to unilaterally suppress the disease. It is sad to note that even COPAC failed to recognize the value of our recommendations concerning this group and its needs, which means we are going to live within a law that does not protect everyone.
"What are we if we fail to recognize such a group of people constituting 7 percent of our population? bemoaned Gavi.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Labor and Social Welfare Hon Paurina Mupariwa Gwanyanya said her Ministry is quite aware of the problems being experienced by the aging in providing care to the sick and the OVCs.
She further noted that the ministry has introduced two programmes which would see older persons getting US$20 and US$25 for the social grants and social protection, respectively.
The Minister however said her ministry has not been able to pay the elderly since June last year due to economic constraints promising to deposit the outstanding dues as soon as they get the money.
Hon Mupariwa also encouraged the older persons to register the OVCs under the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) for assistance in paying school fees.
She however said that Beam is paying last year third term's fees at the moment but was quick to assure that no child registered under BEAM shall be chased away.
"No child under Beam programme shall be chased out of school as doing that will be tantamount to putting the government to task," she said.