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Sub-Saharan Africa

The Social Situation Of Older Africans

Respect is a core cultural value in sub-Saharan Africa. Indigenous ideologies strongly affirm the respect due those older than oneself, especially elders nearing death and ancestorhood. Respect is shown through obedience, deferential behavior, and participation in reciprocal exchanges of goods and labor among kin. Parents should care for children properly, and children should reciprocate by providing support and care for parents—not just when parents became frail, but all their lives. Elders should be social guides for younger generations.

In Africa in the early twenty-first century, respect remains a strong cultural value, and families are deeply concerned for their older members. However, the ability of families to provide has diminished as a consequence of widespread poverty, labor migration, and having to make hard choices between the competing needs of children and aging parents. Furthermore, in the twentieth century, elders lost much control over strategic resources, as younger adults (especially men) pursued options in the new economic and political orders where wealth, prestige, and power did not depend on elders. The formal educational system and new technologies and information undermined the importance of elders’ knowledge and diminished their roles as social guides. As the economic and cultural bases of elders’ prestige and power declined, elders’ status and influence declined in various ways, though not uniformly nor entirely. Many elders are still given respect, though it may sometimes be superficial: they may not be consulted for their advice nor receive family support—and even when received, support may be inadequate.

The central issues in African aging revolve around families, intergenerational relations, and whether modern African families provide adequate support and care to older members. Is the African family falling apart, disintegrating, or disappearing? Or is it changing and adapting to modern conditions? Much research indicates that many elderly Africans, perhaps even a majority, receive substantial assistance from their families, especially spouses, children, and grandchildren. Other research questions the universality of these findings. In any case, inadequate support is not surprising, given Africa’s widespread poverty.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 4Sub-Saharan Africa - The Economic Situation Of Older Africans, The Social Situation Of Older Africans, Vulnerable Elders, Policy And Practical Implications