Finding new ways to support older people in Rwanda

Covid19Vulnerable AdultsRwanda

The Bible tells us that ‘grey hair is a crown of splendour’ (Proverbs 16:31). However, in some societies, older people can seem ‘invisible’, and both their strengths and their needs can be easily overlooked. Tearfund has been working to find new ways to support older people in Rwanda, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

Charles* is a survivor of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. He is now 83, and lives with his wife Rebecca* who is 70 years old. Charles suffers with ill-health and poor eyesight and is unable to work. The couple, like many older people in Rwanda, rely on their children for everyday provisions and food.

However, during the coronavirus lockdown, Charles’s children were unable to visit or deliver food. Fortunately, a local church group, supported by a Tearfund partner, reached out and offered to provide regular food packages to Charles and his family.

This was a welcome surprise for Charles, especially since he was not connected to the church.

‘This might seem little, but it is a very big help,’ Charles says. ‘What is more important is the heart with which they provided food, even though I’m not a member of their congregation. Who am I for them to think about me?’

‘Older people need us,’ says Mr Fulgence, the Church and Community Facilitator at the church that helped Charles and his family.

Researching the needs of older people
Even before the pandemic, Tearfund was aware that urgent action needed to be taken to support older people in Rwanda.

In 2019, due to increasing concerns that older people were being overlooked, Tearfund commissioned research into poverty among older people in Rwanda.

The findings suggest that most older Rwandans, despite being incredibly resilient, often struggle to meet basic needs – for example, having access to water, regular food, and electricity. There is a distinct lack of social and health services geared towards them, and many are lonely.

‘Older people are exposed to more than economic poverty – they are often socially excluded, lonely and made to feel socially irrelevant. Development programmes and projects do not usually include older people and the focus is almost always on those who are physically able,’ explains Emmanuel Murangira, who oversees Tearfund’s work in Rwanda.

It was widely assumed that older members of society are looked after by family members or the local community. This has traditionally been the case, but there are increasing gaps in this type of care, due to the 1995 Genocide against the Tutsis and people moving away from their families for work. However, no alternative support system has been put in place. Since the number of people over 65 in Rwanda is set to increase by three to five times in the next twenty years, this problem cannot be ignored.

New risks, new opportunities
Soon after this research was published, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Older people immediately became even more vulnerable since they are most at risk of complications from the virus.

Tearfund and our local partners took this opportunity to step up support for older people across Rwanda. Our coronavirus response included providing food packages, face masks, sharing public health messages on local radio, promoting hygiene practices, and offering psychological and social support.

Rather than assuming older people are being looked after by family members, Tearfund urged local partners and churches to reach out beyond their usual communities. This meant that older people like Charles were able to receive the help they desperately needed.

Prioritising older people
As Rwanda continues to fight the pandemic, Tearfund and our local partners continue to work hard on the front lines to support the most vulnerable. During the pandemic, and beyond, we are committed to supporting Rwanda’s ageing population and ensuring they get the care they need.

Since churches are present in almost every community in Rwanda, and faith leaders are generally trusted, Tearfund’s model of working through the local church has the potential to be extremely effective in reaching and supporting Rwanda’s ageing population in the years to come.

‘Our ageing and inclusion project will ensure we keep older people in focus in all our programming,’ says Emmanuel Murangira. ‘It will help us to continuously learn, develop strategies and approaches for the care, support and inclusion of older people in our work and the life of the communities that God has called us to serve. Only this way can we truly honour and celebrate them, for without them we wouldn't be who we are or be where we are today!’

Please pray

  • Thank God that Tearfund and our local partners have been able to help older people like Charles during the pandemic. Pray that Tearfund’s recent research on the needs of the ageing population in Rwanda will encourage governments, churches and other development agencies to provide more support to older people. 
  • Pray for older people around the world as they face various challenges, including coronavirus. Pray for those who are socially isolated to form new connections and receive the support and care that they need.  
  • The coronavirus pandemic has reached a sobering milestone, with 1 million deaths now reported across the world. Please join us in praying for all those who are sick, grieving the loss of loved ones, or have been pushed further into poverty as a result of the pandemic. And let’s keep praying for an end to coronavirus.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Agnes McGrane