Eritrea: The things we do or don't do for our elderly
Our Elderly People…
The Things We Do or Don’t For Them
By Mela Ghebremedhin
I am in my usual deep thoughts while walking around in the city of Asmara… I am thinking about the elders this time. Yes, the aging population that I see wandering in the streets of the capital. They seem lonely and at the same time full of stories to tell. I am just asking myself why this older generation is left alone. Who is supposed to take care of them?
We often hear about the development and empowerment of the youth, children and women as the main focus but rarely the case of the aging population is put on the table. However, at global level, population is aging and the African continent is not exceptional on this case. As the life expectancy is longer and will continue to grow, the conditions of living of the elders are not improving.
Surely, in Eritrean culture, the respect and care given to the elders are still part of the society’s values. Nonetheless, in urban settings, I notice that the influence of western values of individualism and self-centered lifestyle are slowly taking over the traditional ones. Not to generalize, of course, the care given to aged people remains better in Eritrea than in many other places I have lived in or visited. Conversely, as my critical mind takes over my thoughts, when I see the number of elders left alone and asking for help in the streets of the capital, my heart aches and I am wondering where have our values gone? Why did the older generation put their dignity aside to ask for help?
Although the young generation is also growing; simultaneously, the living conditions of the aging population is not becoming any easier. As written in the report by the African Development Bank, The Aging Population Challenges in Africa (2011), what goes with the aging population is increasing chronic conditions, disabilities and dependency. As a matter of fact, in 2010, 36 million elderly people aged 65 years and above accounted for 3.6% of Africa’s population and statistics estimate that the aging population will accelerate between 2010 and 2030 and could account to about 10% of the population by 2050 (UN DESA, 2011). Thus, sooner or later, the elderly people would be as many as in the developed world. Nonetheless, the care given to the elders remains low compared to the richer countries. What is the reason behind?
Although most care are given informally by family members, the responsibility towards the older generation is not perceived as significant to the younger one but also policy making decisions. Indeed, policy makers have to face multiple challenges and implementing effective social services demands time and financial stability of one’s country. The latter explains the reason why the aged people are invisible to policy makers in the so-called ‘Global South’.
In addition to the changing values impacted by the globalization process; youth are facing multiple challenges and struggling to find their place and catch up with rising competition. In other words, younger generation or the working group aged 16-64 have to overcome many challenges from education to employment, where jobs are no longer secured and where family structures are shifting. As a result, the situation of the aged population becomes secondary to them.
Further, Eritrea as a young nation focuses primarily on the youth. Besides the well-being of women and children, youth is primary in any policy decisions or development programs. As I remember a meeting I had with the Head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Eritrea, last year, one challenge he mentioned is the situation of the elderly people in the country. The lack of appropriate geriatric establishments would need to be closely looked at in the coming years. Certainly, as the aging population grows, the fertility rate is decreasing worldwide and also in Eritrea. In fact, with development and decrease in mortality rate at birth, Eritrean families are becoming smaller especially among those urban dwellers. Moreover, women are increasingly professionally active which also impacts on the decision to have two children rather than four or five. The ‘spill over’ effect is, thus, evident that with an aging population and a decrease in number of children born, the population ratio between active and aged population is shrinking.
Accordingly, aging population means additional care. It is clear that, often, longevity results in disability, chronic diseases or dementia. Sadly, the older population is facing multiple health-related issues with Alzheimer’s as the most common neurological disease while chronic disease such as diabetes, heart or respiratory failures and also cancers hit in majority the elderly people. The increased health conditions are influencing the economic situation of the entire household while the need for care increases simultaneously. As a result, the aging population becomes, both economically and socially, a burden to the family and the society. Furthermore, movements are restricted with increasing disability, which reduces their access to facilities.
As the living conditions of elderly-headed households are facing an increasing prevalence to poverty, how could we tackle the situation of our elders in Eritrea? Clearly, awareness campaign on the importance of keeping traditional values towards our elders would need to be enhanced through the media, workshops in educational institutions, national associations and local communities.
Secondly, as development programs such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) fails to include the aging population as one of the sector to develop. Therefore, international organizations such as the UN Development Program (UNDP) should include the aging population within their programs and financial support to this growing part of the population. Policy makers and Ministries of Health, Human Welfare and Labor and others concerned government bodies would also have to enhance their ongoing work on this matter.
Certainly, the establishment of appropriate geriatric institutions, home care and nursing to both urban and rural areas but also offering pension insurance would respond to the actual situation of the elders and especially to those left alone. Having clear programs would also tackle any abuses towards the elderly through a system of monitoring and evaluation.
It is not only about building the institutions to take care of our grandparents but also to acknowledge the huge part they have in our society. If the living conditions and care given to the elders are improved; ‘getting old’ could only mean having a full, happy, active, wealthy, well-deserved life after years of hard work.
As a passionate of history, I believe that the best way to learn history is by listening to those who made history through their life experience. As I am still walking around the city, I just wish my grandparents were still part of our world so I could get to listen to our family’s history…
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