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Africa: Older people need help to raise the next generation

November 11, 2009
NAIROBI, 11 November 2009 (PlusNews) - When the working members of a household die from HIV-related illnesses in northern Tanzania, older dependants have to work longer hours to cope financially, according to recently published World Bank study.

"Adult death is associated with increased farm hours ... Older women who suffer the loss of a co-resident member among their baseline household are working five hours more each week," the study found.

More than 1,000 men and women older than 50 were surveyed over a 13-year period between 1991 and 2004 in the Kagera region.

Older adults who had relied on remittances and other in-kind support from their adult children were left with the burden of caring not only for themselves but also their orphaned grandchildren.

"Grandparents who should be in retirement are forced to start working and parenting again, often when they are not in the best physical condition," said Wamuyu Manyara, portfolio manager at the Africa Regional Development Centre of HelpAge International. "An older woman with thinning bones should really not be forced to return to the field and farm."

The study noted that the shocks caused by the death of adult children were primarily felt by older people living with the children when they died. Women had less secure access to land and assets than men, but shouldered most of the labour after their children died, and also felt the shocks more than men. Owning more assets, such as land and animals, could act as a buffer.

"Policies which help ensure complete markets for livestock and other forms of assets, provide asset accumulation, and preserve women's rights to property may help mitigate the long-run negative impact of prime-age [15-50 years] deaths," the report said.

Little support

The elderly were often marginalised by state welfare programmes. "Older people are not organised enough to advocate for their needs, and they wind up being grouped in government departments with either children or people with disabilities - both these groups have powerful lobbies that drown out the needs of older people," said HelpAge's Manyara.

"In Kenya we are currently in the process of identifying community spokespeople to give them a public voice, but because many of them can't speak English or are illiterate, they are not always willing to take on the challenge."

Several African governments were doing more to include older people in social welfare programmes, particularly older carers. "There is now an appreciation of the magnitude of the problem, and there are some programmes catering for older people's economic needs," Manyara noted.

"Old-age pensions and child-care grants provided to older South Africans, and cash transfer programmes for older Kenyans, are practical examples of the types of programmes that need to be rolled out across the region ... [but the need] is still much higher than the numbers being catered for."

Research by the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, in five African countries found that between 40 percent and 60 percent of all orphans in Kenya, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe were being cared for by grandparents, particularly grandmothers.

Need for targeted programming

"Some of these older people can still work - they have energy and should be supported in their work with income-generating projects," Manyara suggested. "The conditions for accessing microfinance are usually so rigid that older people do not qualify; something should be done to encourage older people still able to work to access these funds."

Kavutha Mutuvi, HelpAge International's regional advocacy coordinator, said older people needed secure incomes. "There should be social pensions ... especially for those who are caring for households in their old age," she said.

Yet the bureaucratic hurdles in accessing support were considerable. "When a grandmother wants to claim a foster care grant, she may be asked for death certificates for her children or birth certificates of the grandchildren," Mutuvi pointed out.

"She may not have or have access to this documentation, but the fact that she is their grandmother can easily be verified by consulting community leaders - there should be a way to do away with much of the red tape they go through to claim support."

Older people also needed psychosocial assistance when their children died and they were left to raise the grandchildren. "We have tried to form support groups, which are more successful among women than men, but when it comes to helping grandparents with parenting skills, there is a definite need ... because they do come to us with questions when kids, for instance, want to know about sexuality," Mutuvi said.

The role of older people should be acknowledged when drawing up national home-based care policies and programmes, she said, by providing meaningful support such as physical help from community workers.