Under the best of circumstances, living to a ripe old age requires resilience. For those who grow old in the economically developing world, it also requires no small amount of courage.
The 2015 U.N. “World Population Aging” report said that the percentage of the population that is elderly is growing in nearly every nation on Earth. Like most major social developments, that increase will likely have the greatest impact on those living in poverty. Unbound has been ahead of the curve in learning how to respond to that reality.
In the mid-1980s, Unbound became the first major U.S.-based nonprofit organization to offer sponsors the opportunity to provide monthly financial support for elderly persons living in poverty. Today, it remains the only major sponsorship organization to include seniors among those they support.
[bctt tweet=”“Our elder program is something unique in the sponsorship world.” — Becky Findley, international evaluations manager” username=”unboundorg”]
“The goals for working with elders are different than working with other sponsored members in that your long-term goal isn’t sustainability,” Findley said. “It’s more in access to needed services and a dignified life.”
Since December 2017, Unbound’s international programs staff in Kansas City has been working closely with local staff at program sites throughout the world to develop an elder survey tool. As of this writing, data is being collected at 25 program sites in 14 countries throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. The results will be analyzed at Unbound’s headquarters in Kansas City throughout the summer, with the goal of publishing them in the fall of this year.
The survey covers a broad range of concerns of elders in the developing world with a particular focus on the impact of loneliness and isolation on their health and well-being, according –to Unbound Evaluation Specialist Nimisha Poudyal.
“We know elders we work with around the world struggle with isolation,” she said. “They struggle with abandonment by family members, deaths of spouses, this feeling of loneliness. We also know they struggle with accessing the health services they need, as well as nutrition.
“So those are three key factors that we know we want to have a change in around the world, and so that’s how we decided to measure them. We want to see changes in those areas because that’s what our program is targeting.”
Dr. Linda Redford, director of the Geriatric Education Center at the Landon Center on Aging of the University of Kansas Medical Center, said the struggle with loneliness is not just a problem in the developing world, but a challenge in the U.S. as well, and not just for elders. But she also observed that seniors often possess a key asset for dealing with it.
“I think sometimes that those who survive to a very old age have a special resilience. Most have lost family and friends, lived through tumultuous times, experienced physical decline and lost their ability to do many activities they once enjoyed, but they have learned to cope with adversity and developed a perspective on life events that seems to protect their health and psyche. Call it ‘survival of the fittest’ or a learned strategy for dealing with adversity, it seems to be a characteristic more common among the very old in our society.”
The ability to cope is a strong characteristic of many of the seniors in the Unbound sponsorship program. Most have seen more than their share of hardship. In addition to the challenges of poverty, they’ve often lived through ethnic violence, corrupt political regimes, religious oppression, forced marriage, natural disasters, the loss of spouses and children, and assaults of various kinds. Yet most bear it with amazing serenity.
Unbound recognizes that sponsored elders are more than resilient. They are also a resource for their families and communities — one that’s frequently undervalued by contemporary society. According to the U.N.’s “World Population Aging” report,
“Societies benefit from the wisdom and experience of older persons and from their contributions to the labor force, as well as from their volunteerism, philanthropy and civic engagement.”
The Unbound staff hopes that the current evaluation will confirm what they believe is beneficial and distinctive about the elder program, which has its own virtues apart from the sponsorship of children.
“With elders, all you are looking for is that relationship, and making them as comfortable as possible,” Poudyal said. “And actually no expectations form, so it’s a very beautiful relationship.”
Part of that beauty is the bonding that often happens between sponsor and elder, a more mature relationship than one could expect with a child. No matter how often she’s observed it, Findley still finds it moving.
“So many times I’ve met elders, and they pull out pictures of their sponsors. They pull out letters and talk about the lives of their sponsors and their sponsor’s children and grandchildren, and how it snowed in Minnesota. And here I am in rural Uganda learning about it.”
Findley and her colleagues know they have more to learn from sponsored elders. They’re eager for the lessons to commence.