Why you would rather age in Belgium than in Kenya
Posted Thursday, July 26 2012 at 19:58
Not being on a scholarship and having to fend for myself, I had been fortunate to land a job on campus as a cleaner for Prof Lafontaine.
He was a Catholic lay brother who had lectured in Georgian studies until the on-set of Parkinson’s disease forced him into early retirement. The university had continued to house him and twice weekly I cleaned for him and did his laundry. Or I tried to.
Prof Lafontaine missed the lecture hall terribly and the reduced mobility brought on by the disease had done away with the little social life he had enjoyed outside the academia.
And so I would often arrive to find that he had bought a fruit tart and brewed the coffee over which we would have long conversations about anything and everything.
The unremitting progression of the disease finally forced him into a nursing home at barely 50. I remember thinking how sad it was that he had no family to take him in and yet how fortunate that, thanks to the Belgian social security system, he would not be destitute but would be cared for to the end.
The country’s extensive system of social welfare – to which employees contribute 13 per cent of their pay before taxes while employers contribute the equivalent of 35 per cent of each worker’s salary—provides, among other benefits, unemployment insurance, pensions, medical insurance and salary cover in the event of illness, work-related sickness or injury.
The following summer I found a holiday job in a nursing home and came face to-face with the reality of old age as it is experienced in Belgium.
I remember one elderly woman in particular who would rush to her window at the sound of a car coming up the driveway in the hope that she would be receiving a visitor.
She would come away disappointed, weep bitterly, and still be drawn to the window when she next heard a car pulling up.
I was appalled to discover that her longed-for daughter was an employee of the home who had returned from her month-long holiday to claim that she had been too busy redecorating her home to visit her mother.
Then there was the fellow who would gaily wish me good morning in mid-afternoon as I left at the end of my shift, and the dandy in his white linen suit, thick gold chain and panama hat who I had taken for a visitor but who, as it turned out, was a deluded resident living in a Caribbean island of his imagination.
While Prof Lafontaine had been struck down with Parkinson’s disease while only in his 50s, non-communicable diseases such as the one he suffered from are the leading cause of chronic illness and disability in a population whose life expectancy at birth is 80 years, forcing offspring to put into care elderly parents who can no longer cope with living independently within their own homes.
My friend Miss Lucy is a rare exception. She had met her American husband at the end of the Second World War and together they had travelled the world, living in San Salvador, Abidjan, Reykjavik, and even in Algiers during the Franco-Algerian war, settling in Belgium when her husband retired.
They had been together for 67 years before he died last year.
At 86, Miss Lucy is still going strong, needing only a walking stick and a leg brace to get along. She still lives in her own home, paints, loves making sketches of her friends, spins a good yarn and belongs to a book club that meets once a week over coffee and cake.