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The Elderly Have A Burden: Taking Care of HIV-Infected Generations

By Burmese Journalist

Khun Bampen Oot Mating’s life changed forever when in 1988 she learned that her two surviving sons had the HIV virus.

“My life is like a drama movie,” said Khun Bampen.

She has suffered many traumatic events. She lost all four of her children. Two children had passed away in childhood by high fever, probably malaria. The family didn’t have transportation to go to the hospital at that time. Then, in 1995 and 1996, her two other sons died of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. Their deaths led to a mental problem for her. Then she was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2000. Her mother developed breast cancer not long afterward. Since being diagnosed with her own cancer, Bampen hasn’t been able to work in the sun in her garlic farm.

“Since I knew my sons were infected with HIV, I was very very sad,” said Khun Bampen.

Since her sons died in the 1990s, she has taken care of a grandson, who is now 18. “I always worry about my grandchild. So I have to save all of my money from weaving,” said Khun Bampen, who lives in Khong Khag Noy Village, Samoeng district, Chiang Mai province.   

Khun Bampen is one of many Thai elderly people who must care for their HIV-infected children and for their grandchildren when the parents die of AIDS-related illnesses. According to research by HelpAge International in Thailand, persons aged over 60 make up more than 12 percent of the country’s total population of 64 million, with the largest percentage of these older people living in rural areas. In Thailand, the population of ageing people is growing, but the government and families of elderly cannot support all of them, said Eduardo Klien, regional representative of HelpAge International—Asia/Pacific Regional Development Center.

According to a report by the Foundation for Older Persons’ Development (FOPDEV), 77 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS are under the care of older people in Thailand. Furthermore, 60 percent of children belonging to HIV-infected people are taken care of by older people. As people living with HIV take anti-retroviral medications (ARV), they live longer, meaning older people have the task of taking care of them.

Phra Khru Wichien, a monk of Chedi Mae Kurae Temple in Sansai District, said 150 people living with HIV and about 200 children are infected by HIV in this district. When their father or mother or both die, the children and orphans must be taken care of by grandparents.

As these caregivers age, they cannot work and they don’t have pensions, said Aphassree Cheikuna, project coordinator of FOPDEV, based in Chiang Mai.

Khun Bampen, 60, is saving all of her money to support her grandchildren. She gets 50 baht per day from weaving but she doesn’t spend that money on food or transportation. She doesn’t have enough money for survival; she gets only 500 baht per month from the government as social welfare assistance, as many other old and poor people do, she said.
“I thought a lot about my life. Sometimes I have only 500 baht for food and transportation. If I go to see the doctor, I must use 500 baht for food and transportation. I’m always thinking if I’m getting old, who will take care of me?” said Khun Bampen.

Khun Bampen’s husband had a garlic farm last year but it does not generate enough money for survival. She has only her income from weaving. Her husband can’t support her; that’s why she feels lonely and struggles all by herself, she said.
She had an operation for her colon cancer three years ago. “I did not have money to pay for the operation in the amount of 10,000 baht. Since I could not pay that amount I must to donate my body to the hospital when I die. The doctor asked me to agree to this and I did,” said Khun Bampen.

But money isn’t the only concern for grandparents.
“The elderly need knowledge to take care of their grandchildren; what is HIV? How to prevent that? How to take care of the people who are infected by HIV? How to use drugs for HIV? So we support the elderly who take care of their grandchildren who are infected by HIV as a community,” said the monk, Phra Khru Wichien.

A 2007 HelpAge International and National Statistics Office (NSO) survey reveals that older people have limited knowledge of HIV/AIDS, are keen on learning more, and willing to serve as caregivers to family members with HIV/AIDS. The survey also reveals limited awareness and use of older people’s rights and services, as well as dissatisfaction with the health care system.

Khun Chanfong Fumfuey, 72, has been affected by HIV/AIDS since 1992, the year one of her three sons passed away due to HIV/AIDS at 41 years old.
“When my first son died of HIV/AIDS, people knew my son had been infected with HIV. They didn’t want to see my face. I didn’t have enough money,” she continued. “I had to borrow money from other people for my son’s funeral. I felt that I was going to die, and I felt so tired,” said Khun Chanfong Fumfuey, who lives in Huay Bong village, Sansai district, in Chiang Mai province.

She and her husband earned an income from selling vegetables just to feed the family. She got married at 21 years old, but after her eldest son passed away, she got divorced from her husband because she knew that he had many sexual partners and she was afraid to contract HIV/AIDS from him. In 2001 or 2002 her husband also died of AIDS-related illness, she said.

She recalled: “I was taking care of my first son before he died. I got up early in the morning and cooked food for my family. I fed food to my son, and cleaned, and slept alongside him. He died in my arms.”

At that time, she also did not know about HIV/AIDS. In 1992, most villagers and even doctors in Thailand were not aware of HIV/AIDS. But one day a Christian organization came and talked to her. “Can I give you some details [about HIV/AIDS]?” She replied, “You can tell me everything, I can accept all.” She then learned that there was no cure for HIV/AIDS. Because of her experience she often joins seminars on AIDS and how to take care of the HIV/AIDS patients without transmitting the disease.

She was very sad about her sons because she knew that they would not live for many more years.

“HIV/AIDS impacted my life greatly, so I asked myself, ‘What should I do?’ I wanted to talk to other people. I sometimes walked 5 or 6 kilometers to talk with others. I don’t want to stay alone,” said Khun Chanfong.

On March 16, 1993, she founded a group of older people called “We Love Health,” in Sansai, to help elderly people relieve stress and to serve families affected by HIV/AIDS by increasing their income. She said the club grew from five members to currently 56 members, including seven disabled people. She has the support of her two sons who are working with an HIV/AIDS network, and two other organizations.

She said, “Before my life was terrible, but after I founded the club, everything has changed. My life is better and everything is going smoothly.”

In that club, members work on small handicraft projects, producing decorative lights, herbal compresses and artificial flowers. The flowers, made of thin, silky cloth, are especially popular with nearby villagers, many of whom have requested training. She uses play cards about HIV/AIDS produced by FOPDEV and its affiliate HelpAge International, which also supports her group.

Many older poor in Thailand also receive a social pension, which is administered by the Department of Local Administration. This pension is targeted at older people (over 60) who are economically inactive and living alone or without care. It provides an allowance of 500 baht per month and had an estimated 1.75 million beneficiaries in 2007, according to the report of HelpAge International.

Older people need four things in their life, said Ms. Aphassree Cheikuna, project coordinator of FOPDEV. “The first one, is they need a stick for walking; second one, is they need ponds for water; third, is they need blankets in winter time; the last one, is they need a house to live in. We need to find funds to support them, but we don’t provide all, we just provide some,” she said.

Also, many older Thais such as Khun Bampen get income from community projects such as that in Samoeng village, where a center helps them make money through the fabric they design, weave and sell.

For example, Khun Rean Bomala, 73, a weaver in this community, can get 50 baht per day for weaving. She lives with her son and her son’s child, whom she takes care of. Before she contacted Khun Sommai, the leader of the weaving group, she did not have any income, she said.

This older persons’ group started with a small grant from FOPDEV in 2000 as part of its “Support-a- Grandparent-Programme,” which supports income-generation projects that encourage older people to remain active and benefit the wider community.

“Khun Sommai gives me some skills for weaving. She is kind and helps older people. I don’t have skills to find markets to sell my products, but she finds the market for selling,” said Khun Bampen.

The four weavers work every day in Bampen’s house, from eight in the morning till five in the evening, producing simple cotton shawls, tablecloths and fabric. This way, she gets some income to support her grandchildren.

Now Khun Bampen’s life is not like a drama movie. Her husband knows they need each other’s kindness since she looked after him while he had a serious backache.

Before she joined with Khun Sommai, Bampen was not happy. She was lonely and she thought of a lot things, and she developed a mental problem. Now, her life has improved. She offers advice to people like her: don’t think too much, don’t stay alone, relax, stay and talk with other people.
“It made me feel better; I’d like a better life. I’m now glad I am living,” she said.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.