The Umelwane Project

May 2, 2019

When it comes to older persons in need, the greatest challenge can be finding them.

Cape Town’s townships are volatile spaces. Violence, drugs and gangsterism are rife and are exacerbated by high unemployment, inadequate housing and a lack of access to basic services.

For an elderly person living in these conditions, fear and poverty are the norm. And for someone who is bedridden and alone, accessing help can be nearly impossible.

“I do feel scared at home. On pension days it is easy for us to become victims. One of the old ladies, my neighbour, was killed in her house on pension day.

At the weekend, I find it hard to sleep because I am scared people can break in through the windows. My only wish before I die is to get burglar bars on my windows and doors. I asked the local welders to help me and they told me how much it would cost. It is too much money for me to take from my pension but I will save R200 a month until I have enough.”

Despite this, many older persons are supporting large families on their pension of just R1,780 per month. They face social, health and financial challenges and are often subject to abuse, neglect and isolation. And the ageing population is growing, with WHO estimating that we will reach over 10 million older persons in South Africa by 2050.

Our job is to find those in need.

Our fieldworkers walk door-to-door throughout Cape Town’s townships, searching for senior citizens who need support. We call these fieldworkers Umelwanes, which means ‘neighbourhood friend’ in isiXhosa. The Umelwane initiative is an extension of our Seniors Programme that provides home-based care to frail, ill or bedridden older persons.

By knocking on doors, Umelwanes are able to find those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to help. We have come across seniors struggling to live with their disabilities, stroke survivors, those suffering from abuse and neglect, and many more in need of urgent support, but with no one to turn to.

“It can be scary, because you never know what you will face behind that closed door… But when I see that I helped to make just a small change with one senior – that is very big to me.”

Our Umelwanes, all of whom are women, are often at risk when walking through township communities. As a result, we have recently set up a ‘buddy system’, whereby a local community member will accompany our Umelwanes to their client’s home and ensure they are not targeted while they work. This has been an important move that helps our staff feel safe and engages the local communities about our work.

In some cases, an Umelwane’s support can improve the health of an older person to the extent that they are able to leave their homes and join their peers at an Ikamva Labantu senior club. Watch Nomalungelo’s story to see how her Umelwane supported her.

The Umelwane team, made up of field workers, nurses and social workers, provides seniors with regular health check-ups, delivery of chronic medication, and assistance in getting to and from the clinic. Our Umelwanes also assist older persons in accessing government grants that they are entitled to.

Crucially, Umelwanes offer emotional support for older persons and educate them about their rights. This has given some seniors the confidence to speak out about any abuse or injustice that they are facing.

When Nandipha’s* shack burnt down a few years ago, she lost all her belongings and was left homeless; at 64 years old, she had no choice but to move in with her daughter. Sadly, this was not a welcome arrangement. Nandipha’s daughter only had one bed which she shared with her two children – and now with her mother too. Although she had nowhere else to turn, Nandipha felt that she was not truly welcome in her daughter’s home. Every day, she would find her clothes and blankets thrown outside the door – it was made clear that she was taking up too much space.

Continue reading Nandipha’s story here.

*Real names have not been used.