The technical tunes that get older Nigerians dancing and digital dancing

lIn the living room of the Regina Mundi nursing home in Lagos, 70-year-old Baba Raphael lifts himself 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.

“Do you enjoy it?” one of the employees asks Raphael. He doesn’t answer, oblivious as he sings along.

For over a year, art teacher Kunle Adewale has been visiting four nursing homes in the Nigerian city, bringing VR sets and tablets into the home of often isolated residents and delivering doses of therapeutic entertainment.

With the headphones on, people can immerse themselves in songs, dance or movement sessions and even in nature reserves. Some create digital art on the tablets, create illustrations or edit photos.

“It’s about giving them joy, that’s the main thing that makes me happy,” Adewale says. “It brings something different into the day, into their routine. They just love the music and experience it in a more powerful way. Some like the dance sessions. For some, we realized they wanted something quieter, so we downloaded sound therapy content to give them more peace of mind. The amazing thing is, there are so many ways they can use it and experience it.”

Art teacher Kunle Adewale, center, began researching social therapies for older people after his stepmother suffered amnesia after a stroke.
Art teacher Kunle Adewale, center, began researching social therapies for older people after his stepmother suffered amnesia after a stroke. Photo: Temilade Adelaja/Reuters

Adewale, 40, was teaching at an elementary school when his mother, father and stepmother all died within four years. “My stepmother had a stroke and then she lost her memory. She didn’t recognize us anymore, so we tried to make her happy in different ways, like singing songs.” Her condition led him to explore amnesia and “social therapies,” interactive ways to engage people with mental illness.

“One of the things we have in our culture as kids is the belief that ‘my parents did all these things for me, so when the time comes, I’m going to pay it back’. That’s our culture of taking care of our parents, but mine are gone, so I’m paying it to others now,” he says.

Few residents of the house are visited by family, making the VR sessions a valuable form of interaction and activity.
Few residents of the house are visited by family, making the VR sessions a valuable form of interaction and activity. Photo: Kunle Adewale

At Regina Mundi, Baba Festus, who has Down syndrome, performs an eclectic mix of moves during a dance class.

Mama Ibadan, a retired teacher, has developed a flair for digital art; one of her pieces is displayed in the living room. Another work has recently been sold.

From her wheelchair, Mama Bolanle moves her head to the music, a rare sign of activity for a woman who barely speaks. Employees say she hasn’t seen her family in years. “They dropped her and barely visited her after that,” said one. “At some point we found out that her daughter had moved to the US without telling us or her mother.”

According to Regina Muni’s manager, Catholic nun Anthonia Adebowale, only three residents receive family visits. “The biggest problem they face is loneliness. Often their families bring them here and abandon them. You can see how it affects them, they become very withdrawn. We do our best to support and encourage them, and this program also helps them become more active and engaged.”

Nursing homes in Nigeria are frowned upon, Adebowale says, because of a cultural emphasis on family care for their elderly. “Your children are like your inheritance, so people think that if you have children, why would you be left alone in a house somewhere? It’s a sensitive issue.”

This is changing among younger people, a reality that is difficult for the older generation to accept. “The transition is very difficult for them. We try to advise relatives to come and see them, not just leave them here, but that’s how it often goes.”

The buzz of fans and generators ripples through the house where the days follow a set routine around mealtimes and prayers. Acts of kindness bring welcome interruptions. Benefactors sometimes send fabrics to make new clothes for residents, or sponsor special meals, or visit like Kunle Adewale. “I strongly believe that these houses should not be places where people feel alone or left behind. We should strive to find ways to help them become more active places where they can interact socially and have dignity.”

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