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‘There are so many basic rights that is denied older persons in our society’

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Victoria Onu is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Grace Nursing Care Centre located in Abuja with focus on rehabilitation, attendant care, palliative services for renal patients and stroke patients, including speech and physical therapy. The architect and businesswoman, a native of Atani Village, Abia State studied architecture at the Yaba College of Technology and Bendel State University where she bagged an M.Sc in 1990. She worked with Os-moses Associates as Chief Architect before setting up her own architectural firm. She specialises on landscape architecture and interiors. Onu has held several leadership positions in both religious and corporate bodies, a mentor, visionary, marriage counselor and leadership coach. She is a passionate advocate for older persons and an advocate for intergenerational synergy. She shares her drive for caring for the older generation in this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA. Excerpts:

What motivated you to set up Grace Nursing Care Centre?
GRACE Nursing Care Center (GNCC) is a product of Divine instruction, obeyed to the latter. I am afraid I cannot take credit for the home; in a trance I was asked by God to ‘go build me a nursing home’ after assurance that He would provide. I received the mandate in 2004 and started work on it immediately. In the process I went to the Federal Ministry of Health to make enquiries but I was told they had nothing on Nursing Homes, I went to Women Affairs Ministry they said they do not know what it is. Lost for information, I took solace from the Internet. I put two youth corp members on the job to source the net and get as much information as possible on Nursing Homes, other related institutions and aging.

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They did this during working hours and at night I studied the information gathered and directed them for more information, the next day. This I did consistently for many years while I started a radio show with Capital FM, to sensitise people about healthy aging and the need for institutional framework on aging. I chose prime time, that is, five minutes before political platform to reach legislators. But it was like I was in the scene too early. People told me it was against the culture of Africans. Nobody wanted to take a critical look at the glaring statistics that indicated that if we do not swing into action soonest, we would be having an epidemic in our hands that would make AIDS or even Coronavirus look like child’s play. The population of Nigeria is aging. A large number of people are coming into old age, all at once.

People are not living healthy and the likelihood of older person coming into old age, sick and with all forms of old age diseases are high due to the state of the economy and lack of social benefits and infrastructure. Not having the land or money I decided to start off an NGO- Care Givers Initiative International (CGII), thinking that the institution would be run by charity. I spent 10 years looking for people who would buy into the vision. It never happened. It was at this point that the Almighty stopped me from working. It sounds crazy but true, I was the Consultant Architect for 936 housing units in a housing estate; the job was going on well but suddenly I was taken off the job with other consultants. I wanted to sue, but God told me He was in it.

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And that if He did not do it, I would never have done what he asked me to do. And so for the next five years I did nothing but build the Nursing Home. With the help of the Almighty and my supportive husband, I was able to finish building the home and equipping it in 2017. Registration with Health and Human Service took almost two years, because Nursing Home was not gazetted and they had no provision for it. Eventually, we were registered as a full-fledged hospital since we were equipped as such. So here we are, pioneering a state-of-the-art home with international standards, a Nursing Home in Nigeria duly registered and functioning.

What are some of the services available at the home?
We are located at the outskirts of Abuja in the Police Housing Estate, Kurudu. It is a place equipped for long-term care. It also serves as a place for respite care (that is respite for caregivers and for occasions where the primary caregiver needs to travel or is indisposed). We offer rehabilitation care, attendant care, room and board, palliative services for renal patients and stroke patients. We also offer speech therapy and physical therapy. GNCC is like home and feels like home. With a lot of beautifully landscaped gardens, well manicured. It is built with the concept of clusters as in form of family units. We have highly qualified personnel, Nursing Home Administrator Geriatric Doctor, Registered Nurses, Nursing Attendants, physiotherapist and Nutritionists etc.

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What is your capacity and do you think there are enough nursing homes to cater for old people?
Our capacity for now is 20 beds, but we have immediate capacity to expand to 30 beds without much stress. We intend to have 220 beds in this one location. Right now we have a waiting list of clients who need the facility but cannot afford it. This proves that there is urgent need for homes like this. We have old people’s homes littered all over the country but there is a whole lot of difference between old people’s home (residential care home) and a nursing home. A nursing home can double as a residential care home, but an old peoples home cannot function as a nursing home.

This is because the nursing home is actually a hospital that specialises on long-term care but has a home-like appeal. This is the missing link in our healthcare provision in this country. This service is almost non-existent in Nigeria yet very essential for guaranteed complete recovery from sickness. Many have died due to lack of appropriate professional care after discharge from the hospital. The nursing home is usually a place for long-term care not just for older persons but also for stroke patients, renal patients, burns recovery and recovery from falls or broken bones.

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Homes like these are so essential that any government that cares for its people ought to ensure its availability. It is not a luxury but a necessity. Moreover, we have to acknowledge the changes in our social architecture. Mothers who traditionally are the primary caregivers are now almost solely the breadwinners in most homes. And so we must acknowledge that there is a lacuna here.

Who then replaces them?
Do you think that older people lack the necessary care they deserve from society?
This question is deep but very pertinent. The answer sadly is yes. Most older persons live in the villages while their children who are supposed to be the primary carers are in the cities. So what happens is that they are left at the mercy of the house-helps or relatives that take advantage of them. That is why there is high level of elder abuse. That is a topic for another day. If such an older person has disabilities, incontinence, chronic diabetes, Alzheimer or dementia, your guess is as good as mine as to the level of care that would be available to that Mama or Papa. Old age diseases can be managed and the people live long and with dignity but it is all subject to the level of care available to them.

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What has the response been like since you started the centre?
The response has been slow. But we are getting there as people’s mind-set changes. It an irony, the people that want to use the home cannot afford it, the ones that can afford it are busy with family debates and politics, struggling with their pride, public opinion and their purse. There are many out there that need our services, if only they know we exist. The ones in the home right now are doing well. One of them, a stroke patient, came in not talking or walking, but within three weeks, he could talk and walk unassisted. The stories are endless but this is what makes it all worthwhile. We sometimes double as hospice where it can’t be helped. That is another service that is highly needed. There is so much yet to be done. It’s not an attractive business as it is more of a social service for now. But I believe with time all of that would change, as awareness and understanding increases.

Having studied and practiced architecture, how has it influenced your setting up the old people’s home?
Looking back now in retrospect I think I was made for this. My knowledge of architecture came in handy in designing the purpose-built facility and also personally undertaking the case studies in America. Being a specialist in hotel designs came in handy. Interior and landscape design are my high points also. The design of the facility is highly detailed from the seats to the colours of the spaces to the well-articulated landscape. I used to import goods and so it was quite easy to articulate the purchase and importation of all the equipment. Imagine if I had to pay for all these professional and technical input, I would never have taken off. All the skills I acquired in my 32 years working experience have come to play.

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You are an advocate for older persons and intergenerational synergy; tell us more about this drive?
Nursing home is the right of the citizens of Nigeria, just like hospital is a right. Now, if I choose not to use the hospital, it’s my business. It’s my right to choose. You can’t as a government decide that I don’t need a hospital. There are so many basic rights that is denied the older persons in our society and the good thing about it is that we would all get old someday, legislators too. This they should keep in view. I am one of the founding members of Coalition of Societies for the Rights of Older Persons in Nigeria (COSROPIN) and also the National Coordinator for Programmes. The coalition is sponsoring a bill for the rights of older persons in Nigeria. It has scaled through its first reading.

Intergenerational synergy is about connecting generations. Today we see the old opposing the young and vice versa. The different generations have a lot to gain from each other if only they are intentional about it. So I try to initiate understanding across generations through discussions, activities and mentorship programmes. Without generations connecting intentionally, a lot of knowledge, culture, tradition and language would be lost.

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Having held numerous leadership positions, what has earned you these feats?
Leadership comes naturally to me, from primary school, I was always class monitor in all my classes, same with secondary school. I changed school at class four before my WAEC year (1979). I thought to myself, it’s over I can’t make it. To my surprise, I still ended up as Senior Prefect of St. Anne’s Secondary School Otukpo, Benue State. Leadership always finds me. I have never contested for any post. Looking back I think my outlook and destiny could be part of the answer. I hate injustice or cheating. I am a spontaneous solution-driven person. I prefer solutions to complaints. I initiate things around me. When ideas come to me, I try to implement as many as I can. I am also a people’s person. I try to do what I say. I am a bottom up leader. I love Jesus’ style of leadership (servanthood leadership). If you want to be great, you have to be servant of all.

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What can younger women learn from your life’s journey especially as it relates to leadership and entrepreneurship?
Find God- if you seek him you would find him. Take your time to do this. Your life depends on it. No two destinies are the same, find yours. Know this – it’s never about you, it is always about service, about needs and changing lives and leaving the world a better place than you met it. Don’t ever lose focus. Stay on it. It could be tough, it could be a long walk, you could be ridiculed, mocked and forsaken by those you love most. Hang in there! There is light at the end of the tunnel. In all, remember family. Create quality time for family and have a vision concerning your family.

QUOTE: The population of Nigeria is aging. A large number of people are coming into old age, all at once. People are not living healthy and the likelihood of older person coming into old age, sick and with all forms of old age diseases are high due to the state of the economy and lack of social benefits and infrastructure

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