“As we get older, our rights do not change. As we get older, we are no less human and should not become invisible.” These powerful words by 84-year-old South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu illustrate the necessary social, economic, and political shift that needs to occur in order for global sustainability to be achieved. He is in fact a living testament of what the world can expect to see, as the age wave extends itself far beyond geographical borders. In the foreword of the 2015 Global AgeWatch Index, Tutu goes on to say that “No future development goals can be legitimate or sustainable unless they include people of all ages and leave no one behind.” According to the National Institute on Health, “In 2010, an estimated 524 million people were aged 65 or older – eight percent of the world’s population. By 2050, this number is expected to nearly triple to about 1.5 billion, representing 16 percent of the world’s population.” This phenomenon is unprecedented, pervasive, enduring, and has profound implications around the world, especially in Africa where the age wave has gone virtually unnoticed.
The Global AgeWatch Index provides insight on the state of older people in various regions around the world. The Index measures four key domains that affect the welfare of older adults which include, income security, health status, capability and the enabling environment. According to the report, “Despite Africa’s rapid economic growth, poor social and economic wellbeing for older people means most countries continue to rank in the bottom quarter of the Index.” Mauritius ranked 42nd, which was the highest ranking of the region. This was followed by South Africa which ranked 78th, Ghana 81st, Tanzania 91st, Mozambique 94th and Malawi 95th. Although the index sheds light on the disparities that older adults are faced with, it does not tell the entire story for the African continent. Due to lack of data, only 11 of the 54 countries were evaluated.
While this report offers an empirical snapshot of the challenges faced by older adults in Africa, 65-year-old Dominic Ologi of Nairobi, Kenya personifies the plight of income security, one of the four key domains. His story parallels others throughout Africa. Ologi spent 30 years working in both private and public sectors, and when he retired nearly 10 years ago, he was faced with a harsh realization – he could not afford to remain without employment. His circumstance required that he goes back to work, and now at 65, Ologi is running a tap water kiosk. He is unable to enjoy his golden years just yet. Analogous to many Kenyans, Ologi is without savings and receives 7,500 shillings ($75) a month from his state pension. According to the South African financial services firm, Alexander Forbes, more than 40 percent of Kenyans cannot afford to retire and must continue working, and another 40 percent rely on family for support. Ologi’s story is not the exception, but in fact the rule. Based on this data, eight out of 10 Kenyans will experience similar hardships.
Conclusions about the Index can be drawn from what it states as well as from what it is missing. On the one hand, Africa is on its way to ratifying a charter on human rights that will outline specific obligations to older people. This effort signifies a more serious commitment to the urgent need for improvement that Africa now seeks to address. On the other hand, I could not help but think about the unquantifiable elements that would show Africa and the treatment of its elders in a more positive light. From firsthand experience, I have witnessed the level of respect given to elders in Africa remains unmatched. Elders continue to be the nucleus of entire communities, and are often sought after for wisdom and guidance. The African proverb, “A village without the elderly is like a well without water” illustrates the value placed on their contributions. Although Africa has a long journey towards developing an infrastructure that supports the needs of its older people, in some ways, it is miles ahead of the rest.
Andria Reta is a Gerontologist and Health Administration Professor.