Photo Credit: Nappy.co

In Nigeria it is not unusual for families to care for elderly relatives at home despite the specialised healthcare needs associated with ageing. However, harsh economic conditions and urbanization are sending more working-class Nigerians farther away from home. As a result, senior care is being left in the hands of hired caregivers, when affordable, or to no one at all, when unaffordable.

This exodus from tradition is also intensifying the effect of social isolation on Nigeria’s burgeoning elderly population, which rose from 8.7 million in 2013 to 9.6 million in 2016, and is expected to reach 20 million by 2050. Combined with the passing of peers and loss of financial freedom due to retirement, ageing can be a trying and difficult phase of life.

“Elderly people are increasingly at risk of depression,” says Dr. Ijeoma Nweje, a general practitioner at the Defence Medical Center in Abuja and founder of the GMAC Foundation, an organization working to improve the health conditions of women, children and the elderly in smaller groups/communities. “Loneliness is a high-risk factor in elderly people.”

A United Nations report suggests Nigeria and other sub-Saharan African countries are ill-prepared to meet the needs of its elderly population. According to the report, fewer than 1 in 5 seniors receive a pension and decrepit healthcare systems are increasingly unable to sufficiently cater to ailments, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, common with the ageing.

Elderly population growth in Nigeria

Source: National Population Commission & United Nations Population Division (2005)

However, from providing specialised care to keeping seniors in touch with their communities, several startups, in Nigeria and around the globe, are taking on the challenge of meeting the evolving needs of the elderly and improving the quality of life for the ageing.

Greymate Care, which launched in Lagos in 2016, helps families find trained home assistants and personal helpers to spend time with senior family members. Clients can hire companions one time or on a permanent basis to play games, watch movies, read books or simply be a listening ear. Greymate companions also accompany seniors to doctor appointments or to visit friends.

Greymate’s Co-Founder, Chika Madubuko, told SheLeadsAfrica, the service was born out of her family’s inability to find a caregiver for her late diabetic grandmother when she sorely needed one. Together with Ogochukwu Obi, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, who is also a registered nurse, and Remilekun Dosumu, the company’s Chief Technology Officer, she created a solution to ensure “Nigerians never have to experience the same hassle we did when my granny became bedridden due to diabetes.”

Founded in 2017 and based in Abuja, Gerocare, another new business working on improving geriatrics, is focused on getting needed physical healthcare easier for seniors. Loved ones can log onto the platform, from anywhere in the world, to schedule medical appointments, checkups, diagnostic services and drug prescription services, which can all be delivered at home.

“For most people the only time they get a report from their [elderly] parents is when something goes wrong. Gerocare was created to ensure people are able to receive regular updates about the welfare of their aged parents anytime,” says company Founder, Dr. Ebi Ofrey in an interview with TechCabal last year. Disheartened when his father suffered two strokes in two years, and his mother’s blood sugar spiked, Dr. Ofrey wanted to find a better way to provide care for older people like his parents.

Gerocare’s home services can be accessed in any state in Nigeria except Kebbi, where there is a limited number of medical doctors, and clients, a majority of which are Nigerians in the diaspora, can pay for the healthcare services online.

Dr. Ofrey says he wants to ensure Gerocare’s seniors “not only have an improved quality of life” but never have to doubt the love and care of their community.

Although smart technologies like robotics, virtual reality and intelligent personal assistants are now being employed to increase social interaction for seniors outside Nigeria, factors like limited data infrastructure, digital literacy and costs can hinder the effectiveness of high-end digital solutions in-country. Additionally, internet connectivity in locations where seniors most likely reside without family and loved ones, is minimal or sometimes nonexistent. There are also arguments about the irreplaceability of human interaction with robots and their ability to understand the full range of human emotions and how to respond.

“Robots don’t understand ambiguity,” Omar Abdelwahed, Head of Studio for SoftBank Robotics America, (makers of Pepper, a human interaction robot), told Wired last year.

Dr. Chukwunonso Ufondu, an imaging scientist at the University Hospitals of Leicester admits, that regardless of how smart technology becomes, it can never take the place of human interaction especially when fighting social isolation in elderly people.

Nonetheless, while human interaction during ageing is ideal, the benefits of technology solutions in helping seniors keep their communities closer cannot be overlooked. Dr. Nweje believes simple solutions like encouraging the use of social media or replacing audio calls with video calls can have significant impact on seniors living away from family and loved ones.

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