In the contemporary context of global population ageing, anthropological studies of elder care offer a lens onto the ways global processes are experienced and managed in everyday lives (Buch, 2015; Cole and Durham, 2007). Care itself is an increasingly international phenomenon, with, for example, carers from the Global South hired as domestic carers in the Global North (Ahlin, 2017), with migrant children enacting ‘care at a distance’ (Pols, 2012), and with increasing exposure to elder care norms from different societies. In this way, as shown in the conversation with the principal hospital administrator in the Kampala fieldsite cited here, everyday family health care practices are an observable lived experience of wide-reaching socio-political processes. Elder care, or lack thereof, in turn, reflects, reinforces, and in some instances, disrupts these processes (Buch, 2015). This is both interesting for anthropological analysis, linking the individual and historical, and for the potential of sharing this knowledge to improve the health and welfare of our research participants.
In Kampala, an understanding of elder care norms in other societies present an idealised or disparaged alternative against which existing family expectations are re-established. Nakito is the principal hospital administrator at the regional government hospital near the Kampala fieldsite, which itself was built with international funding. She feels the health system she works in needs to have “better provisions for these [older] people”. With the ‘youthful population’ in Uganda, she finds that health policy and funding often forget older people, an approach which she feels should be rectified as the older population grows. She has been particularly inspired by the approach to hospital care for older people she observed on a recent training course in Korea, where she found that there were separate specialised geriatric services in hospitals. This highlighted for her the gaps in the Ugandan health system for older people. She finds that elderly people come to the hospital with multiple conditions and have to “roam around” for all the services they’re referred to, with long queues at each department. “They’re lining up around the hospital”, she says.
In line with many other researchers (e.g. Nzabona et al., 2016; Oppong, 2006; Whyte, 2017), participants, policymakers and NGO advocates, Nakito is concerned about the future of elder care in Uganda, as institutionalising older relatives like in Europe and the US is “not allowed” and instead “they would rather abandon them”. She predicts that by 2040, 50% of people may choose not to take care of their older relatives, depending on their upbringing. The “natural rule and regulation” of family obligations means that global media portrayals of alternative, independent, selfish ways of life “make you feel freer than your original cultural norms”. Younger people may be influenced to become more ‘independent-minded’, with the ‘self’ more “on the agenda”. She said it’s now more common to hear people say, “I’m actually very busy”, instead of conforming to the expectation that “you must be there for people, as a team” and “check on your people” and “be responsible for your community, and your own belonging”.
Despite these concerns, Nakito herself takes care of her mother, visiting her every weekend in her home village a 5-hour drive from Kampala. She finds that most of her friends do the same thing at least once a month. Even when she allows herself a day off, at the end of it she feels it’s a day wasted without visiting someone. These family care obligations “leave little time for self”, particularly for women (see also Wallman and Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, 1996). Nakito thinks this leads people to focus on the “smaller picture of family units, and sometimes forget society”. She attributes that to the “pressure of globalisation”, which has reduced the community bond to smaller units, based on proximity. In other words, paradoxically, personal pressures imposed by global processes are turning a once more social outlook inward to immediate families or within the household.
The “pressures of globalisation” are also evident in the health outcomes of contemporary lifestyles in the city, with cooking oil and sugar prominent in people’s diets, work over long hours an economic requirement that continues into old age, and increasingly prevalent chronic long-term non-communicable diseases. In this context, the family is crucial to supporting the health of the individual, particularly to supply the time and resources for care. This can result in older people and their relatives adapting to long-term treatment routines. As Sandra Wallman & Grace Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, anthropologists of ‘informal economies of health’ in Kampala, put it; “in economically constrained settings, health choices become health compromises which in turn, become family routines” (Wallman and Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, 1996: 151). As with the ASSA project’s health collaborations and later outputs, by ‘meticulously documenting’ observations of these routines and also the ways in which health conditions are understood, medical anthropology can promote an understanding of the impact of the political economy on marginalised low-income people (Farmer, 2004; Kleinman, 2012), and attempt to centralise human experiences in health systems.
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