Neglected by their families and a nonexistent healthcare system, Myanmar’s elderly find solace in nursing homes

Elderly residents of the “Twilight Villa” nursing home being watched by nurses in one of the centre’s rooms on the edge of Yangon. PHOTO: AFP / Ye Aung Thu

by Marion Thibaut

Paralyzed on one side by a stroke and barely able to speak, Tin Hlaing was left to die at the side of a road — by her own children.

The 75-year-old only survived because a stranger took pity on her as she lay in the street and brought her to the “Twilight Villa” nursing home on the edge of Yangon.

Her story has become increasingly familiar as impoverished Myanmar struggles to cope with a rapidly aging population that is piling pressure on its already anaemic health system.

Twilight Villa’s vice chairwoman Khin Ma Ma said many of the residents, like Tin Hlaing, arrive bewildered and sick after being abandoned by their families.

“She was in a terrible state — disorientated, dehydrated and above all very angry,” Khin Ma Ma told AFP. “It was impossible to communicate with her.”

Set up in 2010, the retirement home already cares for 120 people over the age of 70 and has more than 100 people on its waiting list.

The wards are crowded with beds, all just a few centimeters apart, filled with elderly people who sit quietly staring into space or lie huddled under blankets.

On one, a frail old lady whispered into the ear of a smiling plastic doll, her only companion since she moved to the facility from the shed she used to occupy in her family’s back yard.

Khin Ma Ma remembers another woman who was thrown out of a car next to a rubbish dump, where she was found covered in cuts and bite marks from rats. She made it to the nursing home but survived for only a few months.

“Sometimes we find only a small note in their pockets with their name and age. That’s all. When we ask them questions, they can’t even respond,” she said.

“Old people should not be treated like that in a civilized society and those who abandon them should be prosecuted.”

‘Here to die’

Decades of misrule by a brutal junta, stringent sanctions and ethnic conflict have reduced Myanmar to one of the poorest countries in the world.

Now it is facing a demographic crisis that is already squeezing the life out of Asia’s former tiger economies.

The UN estimates some nine percent of the population is currently over 65 but that will surge to a quarter by 2050, outstripping the number of under-15s.

“Economic realities oblige many people to continue heavy manual labor into old age to survive,” said Janet Jackson, the UNFPA’s Myanmar representative.

“This underlines the need for adequate social services and policies that serve the aged.”

Already in tatters after 50 years of underinvestment by the former junta, Myanmar’s health system is struggling to cope.

Since taking office last year, the new civilian government has set up only one new care facility, exclusively for the over 90s, which receives just 10,000 kyat a month in funding — around $7.

Traditionally most seniors are cared for by their families, but the pressures of poverty, double-digit inflation, and rapid urbanization mean more and more people are abandoning their relatives.

“We have nowhere to go. We have come here to wait to die,” said Hla Hla Shwe, who has lived in another facility in Yangon run by monks for the past three years.

“Here we feel less alone and people feed us, thanks to the donations,” the 85-year-old added.

‘Good old days’

But to the east of Myanmar’s commercial capital, one group of actresses is finding solace together in their twilight years.

Set up by former screen queen Nwet Nwet San on a donated piece of land, “Mother’s Villa” has become a refuge for more than 20 aging film stars.

“The later years can maybe be very difficult, even for former actresses,” the 77-year-old founder told AFP.

“I saw some people die in terrible conditions, so I decided to set up this place.”

Inside the building the shelves are littered with awards and film memorabilia, while fading photos of the women dressed in glamorous outfits from their heydays line the walls.

Today they often dress up in the same outfits and makeup for fun, and they have even set up a dance troupe which performs each year at Myanmar’s water festival celebrations.

“I had nowhere to go [but] here I am happy with my friends,” said resident Moe Thida Moe, 73, who recently suffered a stroke.

“It reminds me of the good old days.”

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