CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Jan 29 (IPS) - Yaitum Kornkhamnoi wakes
up early every morning to make sure that her young grandson has
food to eat and gets to school on time.
She thought that in her old age, her children would take care
of her and she would lead a quiet life in retirement. But then
her son and his wife succumbed to HIV/AIDS, and at the age of
68 she found herself the sole caretaker and breadwinner of the
"In this family my role is to look after my grandson from
morning to night. Caring for the child is my responsibility. It
is necessary. If I am not here, I do not know who will look
after him," she says.
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Thailand takes a full cycle more
than 15 years after HIV was first diagnosed, many of those who
had the virus have died. They left behind young children -- and
the elderly who now have to take care of them.
In the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai alone -- the number
of HIV/AIDS cases is higher in the northern part of the country
-- more than 4,000 grandparents are estimated to have had to
take on this responsibility.
While 300,000 people have already died from HIV/AIDS-related
illnesses, there are one million more who live with the virus
in Thailand, a country among the hardest hit by the pandemic in
Today the number of new HIV cases has tapered off, but the
illness has had a devastating impact across the country, as
cases of HIV become full-blown AIDS and begin to claim the
lives of people.
The impact is especially heavy on the elderly, who find
themselves taking care of their sick children and surviving
grandchildren, but who have largely been ignored by
policymakers and organisations working in the area of HIV/AIDS,
say AIDS activists.
"It is easier to find funds and assistance for children, who
are perceived as the country's future. When it comes to the
elderly, it is much more difficult," says Ben Svasti of the
Women Against Aids Programme, which provides funds for affected
families in Sanpatong district in Chiang Mai.
"Older people's needs have been ignored just because they are
old, even though they have very important roles to play in
their families," Svasti adds. Those like Yaitum Kornkhamnoi
have been relatively lucky. For two years now,
Yaitum has been participating in a project specially targeting
people like her. Initiated by the Zonta International Chiang
Mai Club and set up by a group of Chiang Mai academics and
professionals, the Grandma Project brings together 30
grandparents like Yaitum to meet once a month to discuss their
needs and concerns. There are 300 grandparents participating in
They are given information about how to take care of family
members with HIV, their grandchildren's health and well being,
in addition to keeping fit themselves. They are also advised
about their rights to free state medical care and social
"We started doing home care training for self for those who had
been infected," explains Somboon Suprasert, the main person
behind the Grandma Project.
"We moved then to family care because we realised that the
family had become the main unit of care. We saw that when those
who had been infected passed away, the grandma had taken over
the role of caregiver. So that's why the Grandma Project began
in 1999," she adds.
Projects like this however are few and far between. They can
only support a fraction of those grandparents who have been
affected, including providing financial assistance toward the
grandchildren's education, say activists.
Likewise, with the state increasingly pulling out of its
responsibility toward the sick and those with HIV, there is
often very little option but for the surviving family members
to take care of the orphaned children themselves.
This has become more difficult in recent years. Since
Thailand's economic crisis in mid-1997, there no longer money
available to buy drugs to treat HIV patients and their
Likewise, the few state-run orphanages which did have the
facilities to take in children from affected families are now
encouraging these youngsters to stay in their homes and
communities if possible.
"It is undoubtedly better for children to remain in their
communities, than in the more alien and sanitised environment
of an orphanage", says an activist based in Chiang Mai who did
not want to be named. "But the homes these children come from
are extremely poor. At the very least, their families should be
given some assistance and support."
It is estimated that up to 70 percent of those with by HIV/AIDS
are poor farmers and wage labourers. While minimal support is
available for those infected, this is often given only in the
last and final stages of the illness.
For the elderly now having to take over the responsibility of
running homes which have lost their income-earning members,
there is no financial assistance available. They have to depend
on friends and other relatives to support them.
Existing prevention and control programmes often also bypass
the elderly, despite the risks older people face in dealing
Their own physical weaknesses, because of age, makes them more
vulnerable to getting the virus, while they themselves may
engage in unsafe sexual practices, despite general perceptions
that they are not sexually active, concluded participants at a
recent meeting organised here by two NGOs, Help Age
International and the AidsNet Foundation.
What has however changed for the better over the last four to
five years is social attitudes toward HIV/AIDS. There is less
stigmatisation of families affected by HIV/AIDS, and growing
acceptance and understanding by those in the community.
But for people like Yaitum, the economic situation remains the
most pressing problem. "The situation changed totally after my
son died. There was no longer any money coming in. My son used
to provide for our family. I have other children, but they live
far away," she says.
"Everything changed after this boy died. The most difficult was
the financial situation," explains Yaitum. "I had to feed my
grandson and send him to school. But I am not able to work
because I am just too weak." (END/IPS/ap-pr-he/tag/js/01).