According to a report published by the African development Bank (AfDB) on aging population challenges in Africa, as of 2010, 36 million elderly people aged 65 years and over accounted for 3.6% of Africa’s population, up from 3.3% in 2000. It noted a steady increase during the last forty years and projected that by 2030, the elderly could account for 4.5% of the population and nearly 10% of the population by 2050.
Unfortunately, this increase in the number of older people in Africa is taking place at a time when the continent is seriously lacking in formal institutions to provide support for elderly people. And in present times, the challenge is much more profound for the un-skilled and un-educated older people who engaged primarily in informal livelihood activities and employment throughout their younger days.
Only a small fraction of that demographic group depend on their life savings and retirement entitlements. The larger percentage however, rely on traditional kinship support mechanisms in which they are cared for by their children, grandchildren, siblings and distant younger relatives who are still in the ‘working age’ according to the Age Dependency Ratio.
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But times are changing and the efficacy of these informal mechanisms are eroding due to the effects of urbanization on the socio-cultural pattern and economic status of working age individuals (between 15-64 years old). The nature and structure of the family system is changing in West Africa.
As a result of increasing urbanization, families are more nuclear than extended and the capacity of young families to cater for elderly people is diminishing due to increased cost of living in towns and cities. Hence, it is not uncommon to see elderly people still actively fending for themselves in urban areas – doing odd jobs such as security guards, petty trading on roadsides, manual labor and some even resorting to begging for alms.
So, how did we get here? As stated in the AfDB report, aging is not visible in most policy dialogue. The invisibility of vulnerable older people in major policy documents is reinforced by their invisibility in most national development plans.
The African continent has other urgent and pressing demographic problems…this has resulted in governments and societies de-prioritizing older people in favor of other, often more vocal age groups.
In the absence of government sponsored support schemes for these vulnerable senior citizens, family and community remains the only support institutions that can ensure the later years of our elders are graceful and dignified. While we strive to attain development goals as a continent, we must not lose our humanity and let the ‘old ones’ go to rot.