Under-Diagnosed and Often Overlooked: Elder Abuse in South Africa

This article is the first part of a two-part series on elder abuse in South Africa. Click here to read Part 2.


This year marks the tenth anniversary of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). The United Nations established WEAAD to bring communities around the globe together in raising awareness about elder abuse. Although this problem is considered a public health issue, the World Health Organization has recognized that elder abuse remains a taboo which is often underestimated and ignored by many societies. This problem is perpetuated by societal attitudes and a lack of public knowledge about elder abuse. The abuse of older people is often viewed as a personal matter – it is not openly discussed. As a result, the prevalence of elder abuse is under-reported worldwide.

In South Africa, organizations like the Saartje Baartman Centre in Cape Town are helping those affected by elder abuse.  Dorothy Gertse the head Social Worker at the center reports that a growing number of elderly women are seeking assistance due to abuse by younger relatives. Elder abuse is a broad term that is comprised of various acts such as physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, neglect, exploitation, abandonment, and financial/economic abuse.

South Africa is currently experiencing a rise in economic abuse– individuals are seeking access to financial resources such as pensions and the homes of vulnerable older adults. Gertse states that family members are escorting the elderly to pension pay points and confiscating their finances. The rate of abuse has increased within the last 6 years; Femada Shamam, Chief Operating Officer for the Association for the Aged reports that in the 2010-2011 there were 1458 reported cases; this rose to 2497 cases in the 2012-2013 financial year.

The Older Person’s Act exists within South Africa’s Constitution and outlines the government’s obligation to protect the rights and uphold the safety of older persons. However, Shamam reports that many are unfamiliar with the act, and their role in upholding it. He states, “If you go to the police to report an incident, they wouldn’t know they have the authority to remove the alleged perpetrators.” Thankfully organizations like the Saartje Baartman Centre and The Go Turquoise for the Elderly are creating awareness surrounding issues faced by older persons in South Africa.

Andria Reta covers Africa for Global Health Aging. She is a Gerontologist and Professor of Health Administration.

A Call to End Elder Abuse and Neglect in 2015

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Elder abuse continues to be a worldwide problem. This year, former minister of social welfare, Paurina Mpariwa, accused the Zimbabwean government of neglecting the elderly. Since the Older Persons Act was signed into law, the government has failed to implement the provisions including protection from all forms of abuse such as physical and psychological harassment and social neglect. Due to the global prevalence of elder abuse, the world observes World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) on June 15 each year. WEEAD provides an opportunity for communities around the world to promote a better understanding of abuse and neglect of older persons. This event is achieved by raising awareness of the cultural, social, economic and demographic processes affecting elder abuse and neglect.

The significance of elder abuse as a public health and human rights issue has been acknowledged by the United Nations International Plan of Action. Elder abuse diminishes the quality of life of elders. For instance, neglect is a type of abuse that can be inflicted either by the elder’s caregiver or oneself. Signs of neglect include malnutrition and dehydration, poor hygiene, noncompliance to a prescription medication, and unsafe living conditions. In Africa, this abuse can cause the elderly to leave their homes and families. Since old age homes are not widespread and elder abuse is rarely reported, the elderly end up living on the streets. Elderly street begging is common in Africa and there are very few health systems that currently address the problem. In addition to being a marginalized and vulnerable group, elderly street beggars are at risk for diseases, malnutrition, and mental health issues.

It is unfortunate that elder abuse also happens in institutions of care like nursing homes and more. In Cape Town this year, an old age home was investigated for the alleged abuse of the elderly. According to the Department of Social Development, the allegations ranged from deaths due to poor treatment and human rights violations. The Department also stated that if there was a need to go to court, they would obtain an order to close the old aged home. As professionals in aging and health, these issues are troubling because they still persist with no lasting solution. Elder abuse can happen in families and institutions of care; places where elder abuse should not happen. Although the old age home in Cape Town was unregistered, which is a huge grievance, the main goal is for everyone to have dignity and respect for each other irrespective of age. Without this mindset, elder abuse can persist despite policy recommendations, health interventions, etc. The United States is a good example.

WEAAD serves as a call-to-action for individuals, organizations, and communities to raise awareness about elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Everyone should make elder justice a priority by launching various initiatives such as old age homes or shelter homes in Africa. The shelter home provides greater protection and psychosocial assistance to the elderly especially those that are in family abandonment situations. These homes will help to decrease the incidence of street begging among the elderly since the elderly leave their own homes due to elder abuse. The shelter homes will also contribute to the elder’s social and economic conditions and thus retrieve the respect to people submitted to various abuses. In the long run, the elder’s quality of life will be improved.

Let’s take a stand against elder abuse and protect seniors today!

Sophie Okolo is the Founder of Global Health Aging

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.