In the living room of the Regina Mundi care home in Lagos, 70-year-old Baba Raphael hauls himself up from his chair and puts on a virtual reality headset. For nine minutes, Raphael dances to the folksy tones of his favorite singer, the late Ayinla Omowura, while watching a music video.
“Are you enjoying it?” one of the staff asks Raphael. He doesn’t answer, oblivious as he sings along.
For over a year, art teacher Kunle Adewale has been visiting four care homes in the Nigerian city, taking in VR sets and tablets tooften isolated residents, delivering doses of therapeutic entertainment.
With the headsets on, people can immerse themselves in songs, dance or exercise sessions, and even nature reserves. Some make digital art on the tablets, creating illustrations or editing photographs.
“It’s about giving them joy, that’s the biggest thing about this that makes me happy,” Adewale says. “It brings something different to the day, to their routine. They just love the music and experiencing it in a more powerful way. Some love the dance sessions. For some we realized they wanted something more calming so we downloaded sound therapy content to make them feel more at peace. The amazing thing is there are so many ways they can use and experience it.”
Adewale, 40, was teaching at a primary school when his mother, father and stepmother all died within a four-year period. “My stepmum had a stroke, then she lost her memory. She couldn’t recognize us any more so we used to try and make her happy in different ways, like singing songs.” Her condition drove him to look into memory loss and “social therapies”, interactive ways to engage people with mental health conditions.
“One of the things we as children have in our culture is the belief that ‘my parents have done all these things for me so when it’s time, I’m going to pay it back’. That’s our culture to look after our parents, but mine are gone, so I’m now paying it forward to others,” he says.
At Regina Mundi, Baba Festus, who has Down’s syndrome, performs an eclectic mix of moves during a dance tutorial.
Mama Ibadan, a retired teacher, has developed a flair for digital art; one of her pieces is displayed in the living room. Another work was recently sold.
From her wheelchair, Mama Bolanle bobs her head along to the music, a rare sign of activity for a woman who barely speaks. Staff say she hasn’t seen her family in years. “They dropped her and barely visited her after that,” said one. “At one stage, we found out her daughter had moved to the US without telling us or her mother.”
Only three residents receive family visits, according to Regina Muni’s manager, Catholic nun Anthonia Adebowale. “The biggest issue they face is loneliness. Oftentimes, their families bring them here and abandon them. You can see how it affects them, they become very withdrawn. We try our best to support and encourage them, and this program also helps them become more active and engaged.”
Care homes are frowned on in Nigeria, Adebowale says, due to a cultural emphasis on family caring for their elderly. “Your children are like your inheritance, so people feel that if you have children, why should you be left alone in a home somewhere? It’s a sensitive issue.”
This is changing among younger people, a reality hard to accept for the older generation. “The transition is very hard for them. We try to advise family members to come and see them, not just to abandon them here, but it often happens that way.”
The hum of fans and generators courses through the home where days follow a fixed routine around mealtimes and prayers. Acts of kindness bring welcome interruptions. Well wishers sometimes send fabrics to make new clothes for residents, or sponsor special meals, or come and visit like Kunle Adewale. “I feel strongly that these homes shouldn’t be a place where people feel alone or left behind. We should strive to find ways of helping them become more active places where they can socially interact and have dignity.”
Sign up for a different view with our Global Dispatch newsletter – a roundup of our top stories from around the world, recommended reads, and thoughts from our team on key development and human rights issues, delivered to your inbox every two weeks: