Ask yourself, who in society are among those who have the quietest voice and attract the least attention often suffering in silence, behind closed doors? If you said it was the elderly or the disabled you wouldn’t be far off the mark. But what about when the elderly are disabled, their voice is seldom heard. And why is that?
Do we find as a society it’s more attractive to support the young and innocent, is it because they have their lives ahead of them, is it because they couldn’t have contributed to their lot in life and therefore are more deserving of help?
Working in the Khlong Toei slums of Bangkok over the last ten years as part of the expanded reach of the charity I formed Hands Across the Water, I have become increasingly aware of the silent suffering of those who are elderly and suffering from a debilitating disability. For some they deal with a condition that has been with them all their lives, others it might be a result of an accident, disease or stroke that has left them impaired in some way. The impairment for many and their advancing age means they can’t compete for the jobs that exists. How then do they survive?
When I walk through the slums of Khlong Toei, I am reminded of the remarkable resilience that is shown by those who live in that environment. Some of the stories that I hear, the sights that I see and the people that I meet, they stay with me. Long after I leave the slums and long after I return to the comfort and affluence that many of us share living in Australia.
The story became very real for me when I met Mr and Mrs Bai. Mr Bai was a man who had the scars and body of someone who had worked a long hard life. He was now in his late seventies and his strength was starting to diminish. His days, as they had been for the last ten years were spent caring for his wife, who was paralysed from a stroke and is fed four times a day through a nose tube. Their only income is from their physically disabled forty year old son who works at night, when work is available earning just over ten dollars a night.
Walking into their home for the first time, it was a sight that will stay with me forever, and I’d suggest that is a good thing. It serves asconstant reminder of why I do what I do. The house wasseven metres by six metres, that wasn’t the living area or bedroom, that was the entire house. The timber boards that served as the walls had gaps that you could pass your hand through and the house, as are all those in the slums are built on reclaimed land of the port authority of Bangkok, which is fine until it rains, which it does often in Thailand. The rains cause the water level to rise, which floods their home.
But for Mr and Mrs Bai, we’ve manage to change things for them. I led a team into the slums last year and in a ridiculously short period of time we were able to relocate the family into a temporary home, empty the house of their possessions and then demolish the home. All of this took a couple of hours and by lunch time that same day local builders that we had contracted were in place and sinking concrete posts into the ground which would be the foundations for their new home. Forty three days after meeting Mr Bai, he moved into a new home that couldn’t have been more different than what he had spent the last thirty years living in.
The teams that I take into the slums to support families like Mr Bai are not builders and we’re not confused by our abilities and ambitions. We fund the building of the new home and employ local builders to do the building work so importantly it won’t fall down and secondly the benefit of the employment remains in the community. What we from our time in the slums are lessons in life around resilience, tolerance, compassion and humility. Lessons that confront you there and then and others that bubble to the surface long after you’ve left.