Family ties bind strongly in Liberia, and when people grow old they often live with sons, daughters or other relatives who look after them and see to their basic needs. For those without families to support them, however, there are places like the Old Folks Home in Buchanan.
Here, the old and blind live bereft and forsaken. In a warehouse-sized concrete building and an adjacent six-room thatch-walled shack, 35 elderly people reside, most of them blind. Their bones stick out. Their skin is slack. There is not enough to eat. Three or four residents die each year of hunger, a volunteer caretaker tells us.
On Saturdays, a few of the volunteers from the community escort the residents into town, so they can beg along the roadsides. The little they bring in buys meager food supplies for the week. In 2011, Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs Amara Konneh visited the Old Folks Home in Buchanan.
“Minister Konneh lamented the plight of the folks, adding that his conscience will not serve him right if they are not taken care of,” says a press release issued by his ministry following the visit. Konneh promised to “do something about their condition,” the release says, quoting him saying, “The love and care that we received from our parents is irreplaceable. Giving them love and care is an honest responsibility that we should share with them till their last day on earth.”
In the facility’s concrete building, the old folks sleep two to a room on cheap foam mattresses. They keep their belongings tidy, but their seldom-washed bedding and few articles of spare clothing exude a rank odour. In the thatch annex, tattered and dirty mosquito nets hang over mattresses piled with scanty belongings. A blind man there tells us that “bad men” sometimes come through and steal whatever appears of any value, particularly mattresses.
Residents say the government doesn’t help them. They welcome us, members of the media, with the desperate hope that we will publicize their plight and get them some help.
County Health Officer Joseph Kerkula, the national government’s local health-services manager, tells us that his department provides regular nursing care to residents of the Old Folks Home. He admits the state of the residents is unfortunate, but suggests they are exaggerating their plight “to get more help.” He says County health programming is progressing rapidly, and vows that the facility will be much improved in five years. Kerkula says the primary caretaker at the Old Folks Home receives government funding to provide food and other essentials to residents. The caretaker is not available in person or by phone. But it appears clear from the reports we hear from volunteer staff, and from the condition of the residents, that whether or not money is being spent to feed them, these old folks are receiving the bare minimum of food required to survive. And sometimes less.