No respiteIn Gatlang village, located in Rasuwa, I stop in front of a tarpaulin tent to chat with a 70 year old woman who sits inside washing radi, or woolen blankets.
In Gatlang village, located in Rasuwa, I stop in front of a tarpaulin tent to chat with a 70 year old woman who sits inside washing radi, or woolen blankets.
This is her primary form of income and it’s not earned easily. Washing radi is labour-intensive work: she squeezes the water out using both her hands and feet. She is wet and cold all day long.
Before radi can be sold, they must be washed and dried three times consecutively. Up to three hours can be taken per wash.
In earlier days, elderly men and women wove radi while young people cleaned them, as a greater amount of physical energy is required for cleaning radi.
This elderly woman earns Rs500 per blanket; an amount barely enough to cover her daily expenses.
I think she’d be happier watching her grandchildren or spending time talking to neighbours—the kind of activities that parents dream of having upon retirement. But she must work.
Those who remain
Gatlang was once known to be a ‘black’ village for the weathered wooden planks used to roof the houses stippled along the hillsides.
Since the devastating earthquake of 2015, it has become a ‘colourful’ village chequered with tarpaulin tents and corrugated iron sheets.
The earthquake not only destroyed homes, it also tore families apart. Multiple generations formerly under one roof are now scattered among several smaller, makeshift shelters.
Though it has been two years since the earthquake struck, the living conditions of the people of Gatlang remains the same.
My heart breaks to think of elderly people trying to cope with heat, rain, thunder, and snow under those temporary shelters at 2,300 metres.
In the fields around Gatlang, I stared in amazement at elderly women harvesting barley in the searing midday heat, using sickles and two foot long bamboo sticks.
Wearing flimsy foam sandals, they carried the fresh barley in dokos loaded with 30 kilograms of harvest over ruddy land to thrash, winnow and store the grain.
From my own experience with barley work, I thought only young people could do this work.
I saw these same women back in the fields after lunch helping to sow and weed the plots for planting.
They moved sluggishly, but constantly, their weariness visible in every slow reach of their arms to the ground, and every time they rose up to release the strain from their backs and wipe sweat from their brows.
Indeed, everywhere in Gatlang, the story appeared the same for elderly people. A 65 year old widow up before dawn to fetch water and carrying 40 kilograms of millet to the market on an empty stomach.
Elderly men herding goats over great distances to graze, their tired bodies slumped against knobby walking sticks. Cattle on pasture land at 3,000 meters tended by old men and women hunched in the fields for some much needed rest.
Everywhere I went, the village looked exhausted.
Who is taking care of the elderly in Gatlang? Who looks after them when it is cold or raining? Who protects them from wild animals? Who ensures their clean water and food?
Helping the elderly
We know that rapid outmigration, particularly in the case of men, has changed late-life scenarios for Nepal’s elderly population in rural areas.
Rather than rearing grandchildren, they spend their time in necessary hard labour with bodies that are already weakened by decades of toiling in the monsoon heat and winter cold.
After the age of 60, when physical needs are the greatest, the rural elderly continue to live in remote areas away from city centres where they can access medical care and other important social services.
As most outmigration is in the pursuit of economic gain, the obvious solution to this problem would be a quick, wholesale economic turnaround for the country.
But even the most optimistic citizen would have to admit that this kind of change is unlikely. So we must ask ourselves: What can we do for the rural elderly now? If their children are moving to far-off locations to support the family, what services would be best?
State-sponsored elderly centres is one idea. Here, the elderly might gather for friendship and company, but, more importantly, it would create a venue through which the village might better assess the challenges facing the elderly every day in terms of support and services needed.
Continuing education courses and training in age-appropriate subjects could inspire some innovation in terms of developing less physically onerous income alternatives.
At the very least, it would provide healthy intellectual stimulus that could help transmit simple messages about the importance of education.
But the most meaningful steps would come through continued rural development through infrastructure.
The lack of roads, electricity, and water supply create inherent limitations to rural areas that contribute to the drudgery of daily life and inspire the outmigration currently taking place.
The first two suggestions would be relatively easy to implement provided the government dedicated itself to creating these programs.
The third suggestion will take time, but could create long-term change for these villages that might enable them to resume a healthy population balance between young and old.
But for now, in Gatlang and across Nepal, elderly people are still carrying loads and thrashing barley.
- Hamal is a CASS-Gender NRM/GIS Associate at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)