Old and Forgotten: The Crisis of Africa’s Elderly

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Africa is currently the most youthful continent in the world. At least 35 per cent of its more than one billion population is between the ages of 15 and 35. While investing in the youth is a priority for the continent’s transformation, the elderly should not be forgotten. As Africa’s population grows, the number of older people also increases therefore it is important to highlight the issues that affect this population.

Traditionally, extended families have taken care of elderly members but since that is changing, aging Africans are now facing new problems. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that around 50 million people above the age of 60 account for around five percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population. In the past, most of them turned to families for help but the practice is becoming less widespread. It is difficult to convince people that the elderly in Africa are in need of help. Issues affecting this population are not popular because either everyone is just focusing on children, which is important, or they are under the notion that the elderly live happily with their extended families. It becomes more difficult when even development policy debates marginalize issues related to the elderly. For example, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focuses only on women and children.

Despite these issues, society should not give up on the elderly because they need our assistance. There are many ways to help the elderly in Africa such as organizations can partner with local hospitals to train volunteer healthcare assistants who will visit the elderly in their homes and ensure that they receiving the care they need. Other complex issues can be tackled efficiently. For instance, there are at present senior citizens who cannot afford sufficient medical care in South Africa. The situation is more problematic because advocates for the elderly state that the services for senior citizens have dramatically decreased in the last two decades.

According to Anita Powell, Southern Africa reporter for Voice of America, few among South Africa’s rapidly growing elderly population are faring well, health wise, due to economic insecurity which is linked with worse health outcomes. Elderly advocates insist that Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s most famous senior citizen, is not the standard by which South Africa’s treatment of its weakest members should be judged. Unlike other aging South Africans, Mandela spent nearly two weeks in a Pretoria hospital for a lung infection, and received the best possible medical care. The nation’s growing elderly population is increasingly marginalized by a government that has focused its health care on young people and women. While child health is very important, the health care needs of the elderly should not be overlooked especially in a nation with only eight registered geriatric doctors. Despite these issues, it is good to know that South Africa’s pension system was the second most distributed of the African countries in the Global AgeWatch Index, the first-ever overview of the well-being of older people around the world. Without a formal pension system, the prevalence of poverty among older persons will likely increase. Currently, there are no formal systems in most other African countries.

It is critical to provide proper assistance and support to combat poverty and economic security for today and tomorrow’s seniors. Africa’s elderly still contribute to development, civic life, and the economy in many ways including caring for grandchildren when the middle generation has died or become very sick from HIV/AIDS. Ultimately, they need to be rewarded. This video portrays the work of the Ikaheng Daycare Centre for the Aged in the South African Township of Ikaheng.

Sophie Okolo is the Founder of Global Health Aging.

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