An old Yoruba saying illustrates the traditional way Africans have cared for the aged: ?The bush rat gave milk to its children when they were small.  When it [grows old], it [then] drinks from [its children?s] breasts.?

In many countries, the family is still expected to care for the elderly, but rural flight to the cities, international emigration, AIDS, poverty and other social trends are altering family structures and traditional support systems.  The international non-governmental organization HelpAge International estimates that over six million children in Sub-Saharan Africa are cared for by their grandparents.

As a result, in many families, there are no children or other relatives to care for the elderly. In fact, grandparents must often care for vulnerable and orphaned children.  Senior citizens often seek help from charities, or the state.  Many have no support at all.

That situation may be changing.

A few countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Mauritius, Botswana, and Lesotho, have universal pensions that give allowances to everyone over a certain age. 

In South Africa and Namibia, pensions are ?means-tested? ? or provided to only those, for example, who have no income and few assets who fall below the poverty line.

Professor Monica Ferreira is the recently retired director of the Institute of Ageing in Africa at the University of Cape Town.  She explained how South Africa?s pension system works.

"Men at age 65 and women at age 60 are eligible subject to a means test and to a pension of about $116 per month. The black population has a very high take-up rate of benefits, over 90 percent, followed by the colored population (people of mixed race) about 80 percent.  By contrast, whites have a low take-up rate of about 9 percent," she said.  

Until now, governments have been slow to provide pensions for the elderly. One of their arguments is that it would be too expensive.

But Dr. Tavengwa Nhongo, the regional representative for HelpAge International based in Nairobi, Kenya, said that?s not so.

"Research so far carried out in various countries indicates that it is a very tiny portion of GDP ? about 1.5 percent," he said. "So, if a country like Lesotho which is one of the poorest in the world can actually afford to provide a $30 pension to each older person (over 70 years of age) each month from its own resources then any government under the sun can afford it."

Ferreira said evidence shows that pensions help redistribute wealth toward the poor.

About 1.9 million older people receive a pension in South Africa.  Figures by HelpAge International show that the pensions there have helped reduce the scale of older people?s poverty by 94 percent.  On the other hand, having a pensioner in the family has been shown to reduce a household?s probability of falling into poverty by 11 percent. 

She also said pensions stimulate the local economy and contribute to improving social welfare.

"African elders are great volunteers," she said. " Women especially do home visiting, home nursing and community upliftment.  The pension helps them to do it and to educate their children, to provide for their unemployed children, to pay household utilities and keep the family together.  There is massive unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa in general and it is recognized how older people are plugging the gap because of (pensions)."

According to HelpAge International, school attendance rose in one project in (the Kalomo district of)Zambia after older people were provided with cash transfers; in contrast, in Tanzania, where there are no pensions for older people, only about one percent of 146,000 children orphaned by HIV/ AIDS could afford school fees.

Nhongo said many countries do not have universal pensions ? those available to all elderly.  However, he said many including Nigeria, do offer occupational pensions to civil servants, while some privately-owned businesses in those countries also have pension plans for their own employees.  Workers must contribute to the pensions during the duration of their work.

Nhongo said  Zimbabwe, which does not have a pension plan for the elderly, does however have one of the best social security plans for working people.  He says the government mandates that all employees ? whether employed by the government or the private sector ? must contribute to the National Social Security Authority.  He said the only problem with the scheme, however, is that it fails to address many of the elderly who have never been able to work, or who work in the informal, domestic or agricultural sectors.  Ferreira notes that not more than 10 percent of Africans are ever employed in the formal sector and have access to such a scheme.  As a result, women, domestic workers, rural workers and others are excluded.

Nhongo said besides encouraging national pensions, NGO?s such as HelpAge International are devising other ways to help provide resources for senior citizens. 

He said there are successful animal-rearing projects that provide income to older people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.  Also in Kenya, there are efforts to provide psycho-social support and training to older people providing care to family members who are HIV-positive.

Meanwhile, countries such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Kenya are debating legislation, including constitutional guarantees, which aim to protect the elderly.  Last November, South Africa passed The Older Persons Bill, which among other things, extends services and protections to all races, and to those who live at home in rural areas.  In one provision of the law,  the perpetrators of violence against the elderly could be removed from the home.

The African Union and the United Nations both have Plans of Action that call on member states to develop policies that protect older people.  And, the UN?s Millennium Development Goals aim to cut poverty among the elderly in half by 2015.

Over 35 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to be over 60 years old.  Figures from population agencies say the number is expected to double by 2030.  The growing number of senior citizens is pressuring African governments and international agencies to come up with ideas to provide for this growing segment of the population.