The face of Africa is changing. By 2050, the number of people over 60 living in Africa will increase from just under 50 million to just under 200 million. Northern and Southern Africa are the most rapidly ageing regions on the continent. This unprecedented demographic shift is having profound implications for society, influencing people's social, economic and political lives.
Older people play a vital role in African society today. Across the continent, millions of families would not survive without the contribution of older people – from caring for orphaned grandchildren and infected own children to providing much needed household income. The African traditional forms of caring for older people are breaking down. In our country Uganda, it is estimated that 50 per cent of double orphans are cared for by older people. Yet older people are often excluded from development programmes and discriminated against by services such as health care.
Despite this indispensable contribution, many older people in Africa continue to experience deepening poverty, discrimination, violence and abuse, and are unable to access entitlements that are theirs by right. Many older people live in rural areas, where there are fewer services. They experience economic exclusion, and are often denied employment and access to insurance or credit schemes. They also encounter social exclusion due to age discrimination and changing roles and practices within the family. Literacy rates among older people – especially older women – remain low, and are often lower than for the population as a whole.
A survey of 15 African countries found that in 11 of these countries the proportion of older people living in poverty was higher than the national average. This is particularly the case when older people live in families with young children. It is imperative that older people and ageing issues are included in national development initiatives, such as poverty reduction processes, strategies and budgets.
In Uganda old age benefits do not exist. Nearly two million elderly people are living in poverty. Especially old women are often indigent. The fast spread of HIV leads to their misery, because after the traumatizing death of their own children, the grandmothers take care of the Aids orphans.
“Helping the elderly” project of Mercy Hands Uganda supports these silent heroes. Beyond that the project advocates the formation of discussion groups that enable old people to help one another psychosocially and financially. With the money they buy food, clothes and other needed items. The nutritional situation stabilizes, the children can go to school again and the grandmothers develop a greater feeling of self-esteem. The project also contributes to a national debate about an improved old age security.
About 6.5 million people in Uganda are living with HIV/Aids. Elderly people take care of the sick and their orphaned grandchildren. Mercy Hands Uganda works with over 250 older people that are nursing their infected children and raise their grandchildren in the central region of Uganda. Through information and training they learn about infection risks and the best care. They are enabled to act as advisers and multipliers so they can help other affected people and overcome their own isolation. The elderly people are also supported materially: They receive sufficient food supplies; clothing and items that they need to take care of their sick relatives. The grandchildren get books, school uniforms and free education.