Despite the changing socio-economic structure of the African societies, the roles of the elderly remain very important within the family and the community. Culturally, they are revered, respected and often exert a great influence on the rest of the family. African societies are still at the beginning of the demographic transition: their populations are ageing but their life expectancy remains low.In Kenya for instance, 2.4 million people out of a population of 32 million are considered old while the life expectancy stands at 48.9 years of age, the 25th lowest rate in the world.
The standard definition of 'old age' used by the United Nations is 60+ years and according to the organisation, the continent is home to around 48 million older people. Analysts say that by 2025 their numbers will have almost doubled to 85 million.
The UN and some non-governmental organizations argue for the need to address the well-being of older people, stressing that population ageing is a present-day development challenge for Africa. In Kenya most of them do not have access to medical care while only ten percent of them receive a pension.
Help Age Kenya is a charity working to monitor the access the elderly have to health services and to ensure that issues affecting them are at the centre of government health policy and programmes.
The organization has strongly emphasized that "Access to health services is not a benevolent act but is a basic human right for any human being regardless of age." Tadeo Waweru is a programme officer at Help Age Kenya in Nairobi.
He says, "For twenty years since it was initiated we are trying to look at the welfare of older persons, welfare in terms of food, in terms of shelter, come the year 2000. That's when we started addressing the HIV/AIDS situation of the old people."
Yet despite their efforts, lack of pensions further exacerbates the already unbearable situation of the older people in Kenya. Old age is often accompanied by chronic poverty and material deprivation.
Neglect and destitution among older people have emerged as a particularly visible 'social problem' in many cities.
The current Bill of Rights enshrined in the Kenyan constitution does not specifically address the rights of the older persons and there’s no specific legislation to address their needs. 84-year-old Mutuku Mbuku, a retired civil servant, decries the prohibitive cost of health services whenever he seeks medical attention.
He says, "I have been frustrated all through; I have spent about [2,000 US dollars] walking from one office to another without success. Do you want to see my papers? I go to the hospital when I’m sick, I pay 20 shillings (0.3 dollars) for the diagnosis and then the doctor doesn’t even attend to me, I’m just told to go and buy expensive drugs yet I’m suffering. Nothing. "
Some of them claim that economic strain and the adequacy of customary family support systems - upon which the vast majority of older people depend - are weakening as 65-year-old Jeremiah Kaggwa explains.
"I used to be a primary school teacher, my pension is so small, and it doesn't help me as much with my poor health. Yet my children who are married and are better off don't even help me, I feel so abandoned and I hope that I can be able to get some help from the government. I don't want to be a beggar."
But Some older people say that the government has started listening to their pleas and is now taking their needs into consideration.
The government first presented a draft policy on the needs of older persons in March this year but was taken back to the cabinet for more consultation. The corrected version was retabled in September and is now awaiting approval of the cabinet for official implementation.
Although the new version doesn’t promise jobs, it says that all older persons will be entitled to non-contributory pension but is silent on the amount to be paid.
Maria Kasmani, a 63-year-old mother of eight who has been regularly visiting Kangundo hospital about 120 kilometres from Nairobi, says that things are gradually becoming better.
She says that "Since the Kibaki government took power there has been a lot of positive change. People have improved in the way they treat others. Before then they used to have a very negative attitude towards the old like us but these days they are much better. Services by public hospitals have also improved because they fear they might be sacked for being complacent."
Waweru is optimistic about the future but says that the government must step up to the mark to ensure that the needs of older people are streamlined to an acceptable level because everyone will eventually become old.
She adds "The govt passed the gender bill very quickly, it passed the childrens bill very quickly, it handled the disability bill very quickly, and given that older persons are increasing, I think it's something at least to be done. And then there's a bottom line to all of the issues of older persons, we are all ageing we are all getting there, creating policies on older persons is not about making the life of the older person now better it's about making our life better because that's where we are heading."
With every tick of the clock, the African population may see exponential rises in the number of people aged 60 and more. At least among Kenya’s elderly, there’s a flick of hope that old age will not mean deprivation and neglect.