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By Njeri Mwangi in Nairobi & Tamasin Ford in London
BBC Africa Eye
Vulnerable residents at an elderly care home near Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, have been mistreated and neglected, a BBC Africa Eye investigation has revealed.
Secret filming shows staff members physically mistreating residents, dumping food directly onto tables without any plates, and leaving medical conditions untreated.
“Hit her on the buttocks. Beat her,” a member of staff urges a stick-wielding colleague, at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) Thogoto Care Home for the Aged, about 20km (12 miles) west of Nairobi.
The undercover footage shows that moments before, three staff dressed in purple uniforms, surround an old woman by a metal gate flanked by sheets of corrugated iron at the perimeter of the home’s garden.
“Where were you heading to on that side?” asks one of the staff. “You were called and refused to come back.”
The old woman, wearing a fleece and a bobble hat, appears confused and frightened.
“Oh, please forgive me,” she says.
“Now we have to cane you,” says one of the staff.
A staff member can then be seen hitting the elderly woman’s bottom with a wooden stick.
This is just one example of evidence of mistreatment uncovered in the BBC Africa Eye investigation.
The care home was set up by the Women’s Guild of the local PCEA church but is now managed independently. It is home to around 50 elderly women and men.
Over the last decade, the number of homes for the elderly is reported to have almost tripled in Nairobi. Many don’t charge rent and are supported by local churches or rely on donations.
In the next 30 years the elderly population in Africa is projected to triple from 75 million to 235 million, according to the United States Census Bureau report from 2020.
Its growth will be faster than in any other region of the world, making the prospect of sending elderly relatives to a care home a reality for an increasing number of families.
In 2020, the Kenyan broadcasting channel, Ebru Television, filmed inside Thogoto Care Home. The manager, Jane Gaturu, presented an image of a safe haven, where residents were well fed and cared for.
BBC Africa Eye heard worrying reports this was not the case. Two undercover reporters got jobs at the care home and spent 14 weeks secretly filming inside the facility.
As well as the footage of staff hitting the elderly woman with a cane, they recorded staff admitting to physically abusing other residents.
“Sometimes you have to use force,” says a staff member, sitting outside under a canopy during a tea break.
“Even carers who start being polite, they find themselves being aggressive towards clients,” she says.
They go on to describe one man who “is always being caned”.
“We beat him and that is what calms him down. Because if he gets angry, he can even hit you with a rock,” she says.
The reporters filmed further examples of apparent neglect and mistreatment, including medical conditions being left untreated. One elderly man was suffering with a serious skin problem.
“I’m feeling pain. Too much, too much. I feel like I’m burning,” he can be heard saying in the footage, trying to show an undercover reporter his neck. He claims care home staff won’t take him to hospital to be treated.
The gravity of his skin condition is difficult to determine in the secret footage, but the undercover reporter says he was bleeding very badly.
“He gave money to Jane [Gaturu, the care home manager] to take him to hospital,” the reporter says.
“He was not taken to hospital. And when he asked Jane, Jane was very angry with him. And she even told him: ‘Your home is just around the corner, and your people have given up on you. Do you think I will be able to help you’?”
“He used to tell me: ‘We are waiting for death’,” the reporter recalls.
It took around six weeks before the man saw a doctor, with money provided by his family.
In photos taken by an undercover reporter, white flaky skin covers his entire body from the waist to the top of his neck. It is not known what the condition was.
Ms Gaturu declined to comment on whether she was given money for medical treatment and then did nothing.
Government guidelines say residential homes should provide medical care for the residents.
“I personally was in pain when I see them suffering and I can’t help,” says the undercover reporter.
“I used to cry a lot. Most of the time I used to get to the toilet. I switch off my camera and cry.”
One of the undercover reporters filmed an elderly woman using her hands to eat food left directly on the table without a plate because she was unable to feed herself with a spoon.
A former care worker said they witnessed similar scenes, describing how staff told her not to assist residents with their meals.
“They told me not to help them today because no-one would help them tomorrow,” she says.
An undercover reporter secretly filmed a conversation with a staff member about staff not feeding vulnerable residents.
“Do you think she will be the first to die of hunger here?” the member of staff tells her.
“Many have died of hunger here. They [carers] deny them lunch, deny them dinner, all because they don’t want to make time to come and feed them.”
Should we find anybody abusing, harassing, maiming these older persons, I can assure you the necessary punishment would be inflicted on whoever does that”
Most of the food at the home is donated, and on three occasions the undercover reporters saw food being loaded into a senior staff member’s car.
An undercover reporter was also asked if she wanted to take residents’ food from the facility, but declined.
A former carer from the home alleged food was being stolen by staff.
“There was food there but most of the food was stolen. They overload the car with food. They overload the car with so much food it tilts,” she says.
BBC Africa Eye showed some of the undercover recordings to Joseph Motari, the principal secretary for social protection and senior citizens affairs – the Kenyan government member responsible for elderly care.
“Should we find anybody abusing, harassing, maiming these older persons, I can assure you the necessary punishment would be inflicted on whoever does that,” he said.
“We are going to do spot-checks on various private homes and see as to whether they meet the standards that they should be having. We are willing to take action against any private-run old person’s homes that mistreat them,” he added.
We put the allegations to Ms Gaturu.
“The home is a non-profit organisation run on a voluntary basis which depended entirely on donations from well-wishers,” she said.
She added that it does not have a professional medical team and relies on others to provide medical care, “but that allegations they did not take care of residents who needed medical attention were lies and malice”.
“Residents who struggle to eat are given priority assistance and anyone seen carrying food away from the home should be dismissed.
“The home and the management do not condone any form of brutality or aggression towards the aged. Staff have been victims of attacks by residents.
“The home always observes the rule of law and remains guided by the Christian principles on which it was founded,” Ms Gaturu said.