The time to ensure a healthy and dignified ageing for Africans is now

by Matshidiso Moeti | World Health Organisation
Thursday, 25 August 2016 15:02 GMT

Zulu elders sing ahead of the address of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in Durban, in this April 20, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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More and more people are living longer than before in Africa

In Africa, older people are valued for their wisdom and knowledge, and have also been traditionally hard to find. Fifty years ago, the average life expectancy at birth in the continent was under the age of 45. But the life expectancy at birth for most of Africa has now grown to exactly 60 years in 2015, with the number increasing in many countries by 20 percent or more over the past 15 years.

More and more people are living longer than before in Africa, thanks to improvements in standards of living and access to health care, and the size of the elderly population is registering higher numbers than ever before. The population of people aged 60 years and over is tripling across the continent, increasing from 46 million in 2015 to 147 million by 2050.

While this is a welcome evidence of progress, a growing part of this population is now facing an increased risk of chronic diseases and disability. For example, the prevalence of diabetes in the above 60 age-group in South Africa was 26% while it was 7% in the below 60 age-group. The same goes for osteo-arthritis in the Republic of Congo, which was 35% in the older than 60 years age group and 15% in those younger than 60 years.

For many older people in Africa, ageing also comes with household food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare, and vulnerability to violence and abuse in the home. Customarily in Africa, the responsibility of taking care of the elderly falls on younger members of the family. However, we can no longer assume this will happen. The sad reality is that younger members are either absent due to economic migration, have succumbed to infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS or are not willing or able to take care of their ageing family members.

In many places now, older people must take care of and provide for the family to fill the void created by the absence of the younger generation. In some African countries, between one fifth and one third of women aged 60-plus were living households consisting of only the elderly and their grandchildren.

The increasing number of older persons is not a reality unique to Africa, but a recognized trend shared across the globe. The many advances we have made in medicine and public health drive this trend. But increasingly, we find ourselves unprepared for it.

A recent review covering more than 130 countries noted that the issue of ageing populations continues to be accorded low priority within their national health policies. In Africa, most countries are yet to adopt national policies on ageing. As we tackle competing priorities from challenges posed by infectious diseases, maternal and child health, health emergencies and disease outbreaks, we still need action to ensure healthy and dignified ageing.

Governments need to put in place appropriate preventive care for non-communicable diseases—cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, visual or hearing impairment and decline of mental capacities—in younger ages, and age-friendly primary health care for older populations to minimize the magnitude and the consequences of these problems in the elderly.

Creating age-friendly environments to reduce inequity, and transforming understanding of ageing and health are key first steps. Working with national health systems and helping them adapt to the needs of the elderly and investing in appropriate personnel should also be a priority. Governments should also work to strengthen family and community support as well as ensure the provision of nutrition and social assistance to the elderly.

Ageing is a part of living — a natural next step in the course of a person’s life. We live, therefore we age, and continue to contribute to society in many different ways. All of us deserve to receive every support into a healthy and active old age. Let us all commit to take timely and full-hearted action to ensure healthy ageing for the elderly population of Africa. Only with full, strong political will and commitment by governments, participation of communities, families and individuals can we achieve the vision of a continent in which everyone can live a long and healthy life.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti is the World Health Organisation's Regional Director for Africa.

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