1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Ageing, Development and Social Protection

Case Study by Nana Apt

  • Project from: 2001 to 2003



The capacity of older people to continue to support themselves and to contribute to the well being of those around them will make a crucial difference to prosperity and security in every country in the world. At the same time, the availability of appropriate support systems for older people is becoming increasingly important with population ageing particularly in Africa.

Africa like the rest of the world is growing old. The number of ageing people resident in the continent is rapidly increasing. The increase in the number of those who require care in order to achieve an acceptable quality of life is occurring at the same time as Africa's resources are depleting and the traditional social welfare system, the extended family has begun to break down. Conflict of loyalties is evident between newer urbanized conjugal family and the extended family. The urban society weakens the cultural ideas and values that unite the family and a deduction is that African urban society threatens to transform the hitherto much relevant and respected elder into an unwanted stranger while the extended family fares poorly. The traditional role and status of older people in Africa is being eroded. Additionally, there are major changes in economic roles, responsibilities and reward systems.

Africa's modernisation also affects older people's well being in non-economic forms. Modern education, in particular erodes the power base of the old and confers power to the young who are educated, urbanised and politicised. Education has not only widened the communication gaps between the old and the young but it has opened the floodgates of urbanisation and migration. Migration impacts on the care of older persons in two ways: it creates social distance between generations and deprives older persons of their usual sources of support and assistance. Both singly and collectively urbanisation and migration stretch the cultural gap between the young and the old in Africa.

Policy makers and development practitioners must start to take account of ageing not just as an issue of human rights and social justice but as a critical development issue. This paper identifies the immanent crisis of caring for the old in Africa in the context of growing poverty and HIV/AIDS infection. It indicates that across Africa as a whole, traditional caring systems are under constraints and that older persons are overburdened with caring at a time when they need most care themselves. The historical neglect of informal caring systems has served to disguise the proportion of the crisis without policy makers attaining sufficient awareness of the problem to put new caring arrangements in place. The viability of traditional family welfare systems are presently superimposed by modern economic global system and this underlies the crisis of informal caring.

In this paper, two major inter-related crisis situations are proposed and discussed as being at force in the African continent which impact negatively on the care of older persons. These are (1) the crisis of urbanisation and migration and (2) modern economic squeeze faced by the African urban family, rendering the young family financially impotent to shoulder welfare responsibilities in the context of non existent social security schemes for the old. Both crises impact negatively on informal care of older family members. Additionally, HIV/AIDS has emerged as the most recent third crisis factor with repercussions to traditional caring systems never before experienced in Africa. Policy thinking on how to better harness the energies and resources of both the family and the community in resolving the social needs of ageing individuals has barely commenced but this thinking is needed in Africa if not overdue. The paper argues that if the African family is to be expected to serve as the primary safety net as it was, once upon a time, it is necessary that more be known about how social changes have affected the family's abilities to undertake such responsibilities. The paper ends with policy options on how best to make ageing in Africa a positive experience and not a crisis to governments and communities.