The ageing phenomena in Sub-Saharan Africa


We have revived discussions on ageism during the COVID-19 era, especially among our resource-constrained populations. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the focus is usually not on its ageing population but its diverse colonial past, ethnic mix, youthfulness, high child mortality, fertility rates and its natural resources. A recent publication has, however, stimulated renewed interest in our older persons, and brought the following points to light:

  • Numbers of older Africans will triple in the next three decades;
  • Nigeria has the nineteenth largest older population in the world in 2020, projected to rise to eleventh in 2050;
  • In 2020, a majority of African countries have less than 7 per cent older adults in their population; which will be one in five by 2050.

As a continent, we require more introspection on issues which detract from older Africans living their best lives, since older adults continue to contribute to societal development. They play meaningful roles as repositories of religious and cultural traditions, providers of financial support, and asset owners. They fill critical unpaid roles – such as carers of orphans and vulnerable children during the HIV/Aids pandemic. In some countries, young people are abandoning subsistence farming, and it is the older persons that are sustaining families and agricultural economies. Our inability to quantify their contribution in economic terms should not devalue older persons’ contributions in our societies.

Photograph: Flickr/Rod Waddington

Children have continued to look after their parents in old age, resulting in the perception that the welfare of older persons is not a government concern. Investing in one’s children through the provision of education is still seen as a pension and retirement plan, while also a path out of poverty.

However, subtle changes are occurring as a result of increasing economic emigration, the rural to urban drift, outsourcing of caregiving and the changing responsibilities within nuclear rather than multi-generational households. Continuing economic challenges, rising unemployment, and increasing numbers of older persons who are living longer, have also increased the burden of care. 

Governments are slow to increase fiscal space for the provision and access to quality social services, including universal pensions. Older persons’ voices are not being heard in strategic planning processes such as creating age-friendly cities, developing appropriate infrastructures, improving access to geriatric services. Some may consider institutional living, such as age care homes, as ‘un-African’. However, not everyone is being cushioned by family support systems in their old age.

It is also partly mythical that our African Governments are under-resourced and therefore unable to create age-friendly environments without foreign intervention. Most shortcomings stem from lack of political will, little futuristic planning, low prioritisation of resource management and dormant policies. It is ironic that our governments and societies subscribe to gerontocracy with the majority of our political leaders falling within the UN definition of an older person (60 years and above). Yet societies and their leaders are not utilising fully the opportunities to plan for their own retirement and the imminent ageing youth population bulge. 

An additional major challenge is the dearth of information and evidence-based research regarding our ageing population and their requirements. Disaggregation of data including by age and gender, using current human population censors, can provide valuable information on our demographics so that governments can make informed decisions on the socioeconomic needs of the older population. Robust social security systems, for example, can better address the welfare of those retiring from both the informal and formal labour markets.

Retaining older workers does not necessarily worsen youth unemployment, and yet our governments still legislate retirement ages, so indirectly promoting ageism. Compulsory retirement ages can create jobs for the youth; however, a person’s productivity does not automatically stop at retirement age. While the skills required in the work environment are evolving; older persons’ contributions are only diminishing with age, usually when this involves physical work. Even then, among the rural-based older population, retirement is a foreign concept because of the nature of their livelihoods.

There is value in mature leadership and management skills, reliability and institutional memory. However, although Generation X, Millennials and Post-Millennials are replacing some Boomers with obsolete skills, the older population will continue to contribute towards employment creation, as consumers, producers and, entrepreneurs. Flexible retirement can, therefore, still promote skills and knowledge transfer. 

As older people live longer, they can expect to suffer from ill health. Even though non-communicable diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancers and strokes are increasingly becoming prevalent; dietary changes, improved standards of living and access to medical support has helped to promote longevity as older populations become more urbanised. It is therefore vital that we proactively promote healthy living from a life cycle approach and encourage lifestyle changes to reduce the pressure on our overburdened and under-resourced health systems. 

In addition, the continent needs more specialised equipment and health care practitioners, including in gerontology and diseases associated with ageing. Awareness-raising must address cultural myths related to physical activity and self-care. The adages “Use it or lose it”, or “You are as old as you feel,” are being ignored partly because of low levels of education and appreciation of inherent benefits. The result is that few African older persons exercise for pleasure, even though they are living longer. 

Finally, planning the future for population ageing should not be viewed as a foreign concept on the continent. Better management of our natural resources, prioritisation of a life cycle approach to health and development, reduction of corruption, inclusion of all stakeholders in policy-making, can make the vision of African age-friendly societies, a reality. 

Nesta Hatendi graduated from SOAS with a B.A. Honours degree in African History (1973-6) and holds a Masters degree in Education from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, USA. She worked in humanitarian and development programmes in fragile and post-conflict states, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her interests include Rotary, education, animal welfare, writing and ageing.

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students. If you enjoyed the piece, take a look at this piece from another SOAS alum, David Lammy.

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