Dorze House – When Building a House Becomes a Lesson in Elder Care

In the article ‘What is the true value of caring?’, I explored my experience of relationships, attitudes to and treatment of elders. The article notes how in the west, many elders are valued less than and different to babies, for example.

In many western countries, elders live isolated and marginalised lives in their own homes or in elder care facilities owned by the state or private business often motivated by profit, not people. Although arguably there is a need for this, because of the rapid rise of chronic illness and disease and the structure and busyness of family lifestyles, millions of elders can no longer live with their families or be a central part of their community. Along the way something precious has been lost. Instead of families and communities caring for elders, we now have the state and private business providing this care. This has now become the norm.

One model of care worth sharing is illustrated in a short film called Dorze House. The Dorze people live in the remote Gamo region of Southern Ethiopia. The film’s uniqueness is that it doesn’t set out to tell a story or be a model of elder care, but this is what emerges in the telling of a story of house building.

A community of elders gather to build a simple yet intricately woven bamboo house for a female elder. The film, though ostensibly about house building, becomes much more. What unfolds is a portrait of an elder community, its values, roles and responsibilities.

The central narrative is the building of a house for Dasanshi. We’re told by the narrator that Dasanshi’s house is falling down. We meet Dasanshi and find an elder woman who most definitely is not falling down. She is tall, strong, articulate and fully present.

Having lived in the house her husband built 46 years ago, she says; “I do not want to die in an old house. I want to build a new house and die there.” This powerfully affirms her will as a female elder to want to live life fully until she dies. She is ready for the old structure to be removed and to imprint the space with a new building so she can begin again. Dasanshi has not stood still, she is not in decline. Nonetheless, concerned about what could happen to her, she appeals to village elders for help. They agree to support her.

What do we have here?

First there’s Dasanshi, a shining model of how we can be in our elder years. She is a powerful example of an elder woman, vibrant, empowered and strong, at the heart of her community, respected and regarded. A symbol to all elder women that they can be fully part of life and vibrant within it, until their body ceases to exist.

Dasanshi may lack material wealth, but her richness is measured in her inner qualities, resourcefulness and connectedness to her community.  In this community she is an elder woman, deeply regarded and affirmed for the wisdom and grace she brings.

Second, the film portrays a way of relating to and caring for elders.

The community of village elders (all male it must be said) are willing to listen and respond to the needs of an elder woman.  Dasanshi’s request is not ignored or delayed – she is not left to fend for herself.  The community of male elders meet and agree to build her a house.  A meeting is called and the group of elders discuss how best to support Dasanshi build her house.  The elders encourage the active participation of and train young men in the art of weaving a house for Dasanshi.  Meanwhile, in the background a generation of children observe the process and interaction between village elders, elder women and weavers.  Through their eyes and observations they get to witness the respect and regard for elders.

Third, in this community elders still have an active guardianship role. Through these interactions we learn that among the Dorze community, leadership roles are held by elders and it is their responsibility to build the woven houses. Again, this offers a powerful portrayal of elder men at the heart of their community with clear roles and responsibilities.

They have not retired from life; they still have a role and purpose living and working in service to their community.

The simplicity of Dorze village life is its strength. Without the complication and distractions that dominate western societies, there is room to breathe, a slower pace of life and space where relationships are formed and sustained. Without perfection, this is community in connection with each other.

1 thought on “Dorze House – When Building a House Becomes a Lesson in Elder Care”

  1. This is a beautiful description and example of how we can all live together and support each other, no matter what our circumstances or age. This community may appear remote and less advanced than a western village but they show how they care in a very different way, enabling the elderly person to remain independent and empowered. It feels like we can all learn from this story how to be in true care for another.


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