Protecting Nepal’s elderly from COVID-19

Pashupati Briddha Ashram home for the elderly. All photos: MONIKA DEUPALA

Ever since the nationwide lockdown was announced on 23 March, the fear of being infected by COVID-19 has risen among those charged with taking care of the elderly and the very young.

Older people, and those with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease are said to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.

The Pashupati Briddha Ashram home for the elderly and Nepal Childrens’ Organisation (Bal Mandir) in Naxal have both been under quarantine since 14 March, with no visitors allowed.

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The danger of COVID-19 has added onto the challenge of running the organisations which were damaged in the 2015 earthquake and have not been fully repaired. The Pashupati home for the elderly was actually built in 1882, and the structure has been housing senior citizens ever since. A new wing has been added for those who need special assistance.

The Nepal Childrens’ Organisation (NCO) has dispersed to 10 different centres around Kathmandu Valley with 400 children under its care.  Their makeshift office and new building made by the group Abari stands next to its original historical building that was damaged in the quake five years ago, and is currently being retrofitted by the Nepal Reconstruction Authority.

While the NCO plans to move back to old building after it is repaired in two years,  the home for the elderly has made little progress. According to Krishna Prasad Kandel, Administrative Chief of the Pashupati Bridha Ashram the government had allotted land at Gothatar for a modern elderly home, but project has not got off the ground.

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Due to lack of space, the Pashupati elderly home has limited the intake of senior citizens since 2015. It now has 140 elderly people, mostly those abandoned by their families, or have no one to take care of them.

Both the elderly home and the NCO have taken examples from other countries for virus tests and fast-tracking their disaster management plans. The children and the elderly in the two shelters have been briefed on preventing themselves from getting infected by the coronavirus. They have also got masks, soap and disinfectants from the Ministry of Health to last them two months.

While Niraj Bhandari, the acting director at the NCO finds it easy to communicate with the children, it has been difficult for Kandel and his team to make the elderly understand the importance of wearing masks and washing their hands with soap.

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“It is always easier to make children understand, but elderly are tough cookies, we have to brief them over and over again, as they do not understand that these measures will protect them,” Kandel says.

Om Kumari Tiwari (pictured above), 87, has been living at the shelter for 17 years, and does not understand the new restrictions: “We have not been allowed to go to the temples too and we haven’t seen visitors too, but why?”

She also does not understand why she has to wear a mask. Kandel explains that many of the elderly have dementia or Alzheimer's which makes it hard for them to understand and remember the precautions. Many of them also complain about shortness of breath while using the mask, and about not being allowed to meet relatives.

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“It’s only natural for them to feel this way as they don’t understand what is happening,” explains Kandel.

Similarly, Bhandari too mentioned that children under self-quarantine make requests to play outside and mingle with their friends. But unlike the senior citizens, they comply with restrictions.

“We are not experts in this field, but we will make our best efforts to fight the virus,” Bhandari says. “After having survived the earthquake we now have to deal with an even bigger upheaval.”

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