According to the World Health Organization, the population of the elderly in Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to hit 67 million in the next two years.

As this demographic shift occurs it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a huge gap in terms of financial, political and structural readiness to deal with the burgeoning population of the elderly.

Culturally, African traditions encourage the elderly to spend their sunset days in their own homes with their loved ones.

In fact, in most African setups you will find that individuals with jobs and homes in the cities always keep an up-country home which to most is referred to as the “real home”.

When all else fails or is done, we retire to these homes in the village until the final days. This is what is culturally accepted and expected.

The case is however not true anymore.

While before it was unheard of to send off the elderly to a ‘home’ to be taken care of by complete strangers, economic constraints and a rapidly shifting cultural climate are forcing the hands of many families to look outside their culture for help in caring for the elderly.

Religious institutions and private entities are setting up care homes for the elderly and more Africans are now looking to this as a more practical solution.

There are, however, cultural dictates and social norms that oftentimes stand in the way of the elderly in Africa receiving such care.

Coupled with this are the glaring shortcomings which have been witnessed in most of these homes that purport to promote healthy ageing in our communities.

The norm in traditional African culture

The African setup especially in a village home is ideal for healthy ageing. The lifestyle is considerably healthy; healthy and fresh foods are consumed, a lot of physical activity is involved in the daily lifestyle of people, especially in search of sustenance, and a strong social support system in the form of family members is present.

If this is not the ideal scenario for healthy ageing then I do not know what is.

The assumption is that poverty is not factored into the equation.

The elderly in Africa would spend their latter days surrounded by family members (African households generally had huge numbers sometimes owing to polygamy).

Roles carefully assigned ensured that the elderly were well fed, assisted when their strength began to fail and when they finally passed on, there were relatives to see to it that they received a befitting burial and were laid to rest next to their ancestors.

Cremations and public cemeteries were and still are largely frowned upon in African communities where there is still considerable belief in the dead being undead.

In the case of widows or widowers, relatives would be sent to go and check on them, deliver food and other necessities and live with them, assisting them for as long as was necessary.

This system was self-sufficient and very sustainable in past years. No money was required to hire a professional caregiver.

Even as times change and more people now migrate to cities in search of greener pastures, some of the culture still lingers. The difference is that it is not as efficient as it used to be.

Fewer people prefer the village life and so the elderly find themselves struggling alone in their homes. The situation is getting worse with each year that passes.

What has changed

To begin with, the parent-child relationship has changed drastically over the years. A paper written by Abanyam and Noah Lumun of the University of Mkar in Nigeria points out that before Western adulteration, the elderly in African communities were revered in part due to their wealth of experience and worldly knowledge.

Western culture, urbanization and globalization eroded the traditional system of taking care of the ageing population in Africa.

The collision of new social values and traditional traits has resulted in the incongruence we now see in our societies today.

A collective fleeing from culture has seen younger populations misunderstand, misinterpret or completely give no regard to the old ways and why they were put in place to care for the elderly.

While formal Western education has and is continuing to transform the African continent, there have been sacrifices that African communities have had to make.

Education, occupation and eventual income have become the sole focus of many younger people on the African continent and this has led to an unintended disregard for the elderly and their needs.

As the global health map has changed, Africa has not been spared in the fight against pandemics and killer diseases. Intense focus on combating HIV and AIDS, Cancer, COVID 19 and other similar communicable and non-communicable infections has left the elderly vulnerable in the sense that care for them has not made it to the urgent list.

Geographical dispersion in contemporary African society has also seen the elderly lose their privileges when it comes to receiving care from the larger extended family.

The gaps

The politics of most African states has done little to address the care needs of elderly populations. There is a need for continuous, strengthened engagement of the political elite in African countries to address the changing care needs of the elderly.

Governments are simply not committed enough to address the issue surrounding care for the elderly.

Economies all over the African continent have taken a hit and most times there simply isn’t enough financial resource to cater for the needs of the elderly.

Extended family members barely have enough to take care of their own needs and so extending a helping hand is tough. Affording decent care homes is a huge challenge for most families.

Poverty brings with it malnutrition, mental health deterioration occasioned by depression and stress, social isolation and extreme loneliness.

A failure of African culture which often results in gender inequalities in old age is the perceived discrimination of widows.

Most cultures frown upon widows remarrying (and therefore finding a new source of social/familial support) but encourage their male counterparts to find new partners. This leads to widows ageing in isolation and unpalatable conditions.

A failure of health systems in Africa to carry out aggressive ageing research is another gap that exists when we consider elderly care on the continent.

The Aga Khan University and Center for Global Health Equity received a grant last year from the National Institutes of Health to carry out research and address gaps in care for the elderly. More such projects should be replicated all over the continent.

Challenges in modern care homes for the Elderly

In a recent documentary aired on the BBC, we see an expose about how the elderly in Kenya are facing atrocities in the very homes that are supposed to help them transition comfortably into older years.

There is an utter lack of constructive and professional palliative care and most of them are abused and left to starve to death.

Authorities meant to oversight seem to be all bark and no bite as these homes turn into nightmare dens where the elderly contend with more harm than good.

Proper training in geriatric care is still relatively new in African care homes and most of the personnel employed in such institutions are inexperienced. Palliative care for patients with terminal illnesses is also acutely absent.

African governments must acknowledge the societal shift that has happened over the years and come up with strict policies and guidelines to safeguard the elderly and protect them from malicious entities who use care homes as a front to gain financially and materially.

Cover Photo by Kampus Production/Pexels