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Grandma Kyauk Mae

Photographer: Lynn Bo Bo


Grandma Kyauk Mae is the name her new ‘neighbors’ have given her. It is the name of her hometown in the northern Shan State of Myanmar. Her real name is Kyin Than and she is 81. The old lady was forsaken by her family and took refuge in the meditation center ThaBarWa near Yangon more than a year ago. There she found a new home and a place, she said, she will live out for the rest of her life.


The story of Grandma Kyauk Mae is that of many old people in Myanmar, where about 10 percent of the population older than 80 years live alone. Myanmar does not have a social network to provide appropriate care of its older people. The proportion of the population aged 60 and older is increasing rapidly.


Kyin Than came to ThaBarWa (lit: The Nature) after she was abandoned by her daughter-in-law on a train trip. She had been dependent and living with her son and his wife in Kyauk Mae. Kyin Than’s husband became a Buddhist monk and left her in 2002, and they have lost contact since then. During Cyclone Nargis in 2008, her younger brother and two younger sisters were killed. “As the train started traveling, I saw she (her daughter-in-law) left the train. Then I started crying. People from the train fed me and gave blankets as they felt pity” she said. Her son, 35, a military sergeant was away at the time. She realized she was not wanted. A kind-hearted train passenger suggested her to go to ThaBarWa.


The meditation center hosts 2,300 people, with more than 600 of them being older than 60 years. Many of them have been discarded by their families, are sick, infirm, blind, deaf, disabled or psychiatrically unstable. The founder and head of ThaBarWa is Sayadaw U Ottamasara, a 45-year-old Buddhist monk, who accepts people in need without restriction. The facility provides food, shelter and a place to meditate and pray.


Currently older people account for about 9 percent of the country’s population. According to UN projections, by 2030, it will rise to 15 percent and by 2050, older people will comprise a quarter of Myanmar’s total population.


Grandma Kyauk Mae’s days are filled with eating, sleeping and meditation. "I get longevity as I do believe in Buddha" she said. "I always concentrate my mind on Buddha, even when I lay down on my bed" she added. She has tried to call her son several times, who is her only living relative, but without success.