The Haunting and Hopeful of the Elderly

An elderly woman in Ethiopia whose mud hut home we visited.

The face-to-face encounter was my undoing. She was one of the poorest of the poor in the world, I am among the 1% richest. I quietly came into her mud hut as she sat up in her bed. She could not stand to greet me — she was too weak. I could not speak.

Our meeting was not random; it was planned. I was in Ethiopia to visit an innovative program that cares for the elderly in Africa and Eastern Europe (wonderfully called “Adopt a Granny.”) I wanted to meet an elderly person who had not yet received aid from the program, but who has been accepted and is awaiting a sponsor.

And this brought me to a 78-year-old Ethiopian woman’s dilapidated mud hut. I was not prepared for the rush of thoughts, feelings, and confusion that I experienced.

I was haunted by this encounter at first; but slowly I found myself hopeful.

What is So Haunting About the Elderly

My discussion with the elderly Ethiopian woman reminded me of the overwhelming need of older people in our world, most especially in three unique ways:

First and foremost, many elderly are lonely. They have outlived their peers and younger generations increasingly neglect grandparents. This is the case in both the two-thirds world as well as in western cultures. The difference is that the two-thirds world cannot readily provide social contexts for the elderly. Nursing homes and care facilities in the West often provide these types of relational environments.

The Ethiopian woman I met is alone and lonely, unable to leave her modest room. Visits from friends and family are infrequent at best. Isolation is a different kind of poverty than material poverty. It is no less tragic though.

Second, in the two-thirds world there is no such thing as “social security” or “pension” that provides anywhere near enough for the elderly to live out their final years.

Take a moment and imagine that your retirement savings or pension (401k) or Social Security was gone forever — never to be recovered. Now imagine that you will not be able to save money for your old age. This is the situation of tens of millions of elderly people such as the Ethiopian woman.

Third, this woman has been in deep poverty her entire life. When this is the case the person’s later years are all the more devastating. This woman had only a few teeth due to a lifetime of neglect of her teeth. She has little muscle tone in her arms and legs, due to chronic malnutrition. This is the plight of the poorest of the poor who are elderly.

“We cannot help the birds of sadness flying over our heads, but we need not let them build nests in our hair.” ~ Chinese Saying, quoted by Helen Nearing in Loving and Leaving the Good Life
My friend Leila visiting her granny in Tanzania.

Why I Have Hope for the Elderly Ethiopian Woman

If you have a grandmother, had a grandmother, will some day be a grandparent, or just plain care about grandmas and grandpas you need to have hope for them.

Some months before my father died earlier this year (at the ripe old age of 90), he shared with me that “old age is not for sissies.” He was reflecting on the previous year or two when he became more frail and prone to illness. There certainly is a sadness and impending finality to old age, but there can and should be dignity and comfort as well.

Here are several things I have decided to do until I am in the “elderly” category:

  1. I want to relate to elderly people regularly, in a “give and give” sort of way. It is not only the elderly who benefit from having visits from people, but also those of us who go out of our way to visit them. The elderly are often a storehouse of wisdom and perspective, which we can all use along the way;
  2. I will give financially every month/year for grannies in the two-thirds world so they can live their final years with dignity and comfort. The Adopt-a-Granny program costs $35 per month and dramatically and permanently changes an elderly person’s life for the good! Now let’s face it that $35 per month actually matters to many of us. We may have to sacrifice a bit to help a poor elderly person. I want to suggest that it is fundamentally a good thing for us to sacrifice our lifestyle and consumption for a cause as important as this one.
  3. I desire to live by the Golden Rule, which says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s simple, really. When I am old I hope there are people who will visit me, I hope I will have enough food, clothing, and shelter, and I hope I will be able to live all of my days with dignity. That’s why I care for the elderly now.

I adopted a Grandpa (yes, there are grandpas who need care as well as grannies!) in May of this year, a month after my father died.

I did it in honor of my dad, who grew up in poverty as the son of an immigrant in New York City. My dad was fortunate enough to get out of poverty and ended his life with dignity and a level of comfort.

The other reason I sponsor Vasile is because that’s the kind of legacy my dad would want to have, and I am quite sure that’s how my dad would want me to be investing my life. It honors my dad and it honors Vasile.


Adopt a Granny is a program of Dorcas Aid International, a Christian relief and development agency founded in 1990 in The Netherlands. More than 5,000 elderly people are sponsored through this program in Eastern Europe and Africa. Currently there are more than 100 elderly people who have been approved for the program and are waiting for sponsors.

Go to usa.dorcas.org to learn more about Dorcas and to sign up to become a sponsor.

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