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Sub-Saharan Africa

Vulnerable Elders

African elders vary along many dimensions in their vulnerability to risk, including rural or urban residence; embeddedness in family; gender; health; access to resources; and local political and economic conditions. Underlying many problems is Africa’s deep poverty—poverty exacerbated by natural disasters and human violence that affect everyone, especially children and older persons lacking the resilience and strength to cope. The resulting poverty of old age is worse for women, because lifelong discrimination in educational and employment opportunities, property rights, nutrition, and other aspects of life brings them to old age with thinner resources than men. Widows (the majority of older women) sometimes encounter further difficulties if their husband’s family seizes their property and abandons them.

Since most older Africans depend on children for support and care, childless elders are especially at risk, with women a little more likely than men to be childless (polygamy gives men more chances to have children). With sons commonly responsible for older parents, sonless elders may be no better off than childless persons—though, increasingly, daughters support parents.

As with older people everywhere, physical frailty, disabilities, illness, and malnutrition have serious consequences in terms of self-support versus the need for physical care. Institutional solutions, including long-term care, scarcely exist in Africa, except for persons of European descent, so frail African elders must depend on their families. Care is more uncertain for women, who are themselves the caregivers. The great majority of older men are cared for by wives, but women must depend on daughters, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren, if they are available. As Africa’s older population increases, there will be more frail elders, and fewer caregivers due to the combined effects of migration, AIDS, and rapidly declining birth rates.

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