- A new study by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC) reveals that the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on the elderly has been hugely underrated. The disease has "placed a heavy burden on older people, on top of economic hardships, such as high youth unemployment," the study found. 60 percent of orphans in South Africa being cared for by their grandparents.
- The elderly are the unsung heroes of the current pandemic, says Dr Monde Makiwane, a research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), who conducted a study on the elderly - age 60 and older - in the South African province of Mpumalanga for the Department of Health and Social Services.
The study investigated the socio-economic needs of the elderly in a rapidly changing society, aiming to support government departments and other service providers to plan for integrated service delivery to the elderly in Mpumalanga, a poor province located east in South Africa.
- The study clearly shows how the experience of being older has changed, HSRC said in a press statement. "Instead of reaching an age where they can look forward to reducing their financial and care-taking concerns, older people are faced with the responsibility of providing for their grandchildren." The study shows that about 72 percent of older people in this province are the main breadwinners in multigenerational households.
Mr Makiwane paints a bleak picture of the living conditions of the elderly in Maphumalanga: They spend most of their income on household necessities and education of grandchildren; 9 percent are caring for sick young adults living in the household; 22 percent are staying with grandchildren whose own parents are either dead, or away in the cities on a long-term basis; 20 percent take care of children six years or younger, and 46 percent take care of children between the ages of six and 18.
- With 60 percent of orphans in South Africa being cared for by their grandparents, the traumatic experience of bringing up a second generation weighs heavily on the elderly. the study concluded.
To this, HIV/AIDS had added a significant burden with the added costs, reduced income earners and increased physical load. Because of the epidemic, the elderly people were often faced with having to look after their own children as sick adults.
Mr Makiwane points out that even without HIV/AIDS, younger generations are a growing problem for the elderly. After finishing school, young people face the prospect of unemployment. This is often coupled with unplanned pregnancies and the grandparents are left to look after the babies, with little support from the parents.
They have to provide food, clothes, education and medical treatment for themselves and the rest of the household. "Funerals carry a substantial cost, often shouldered by the elderly as the main breadwinner, or receiver of a state pension. Loss of breadwinners stretches the old age grant for the elderly to the limit," says Mr Makiwane.
He says the physical demands placed on ageing parents are enormous, especially in rural areas where accessibility to basic resources such as water, energy, food and proper infrastructure is limited or non-existent. On top of that, they also retain the responsibility for doing domestic work in the house.
Most of the elderly were found to be victims of the past discriminatory policies, with low education attainment and low socio economic status. The overwhelming numbers of the elderly are females, as males generally die earlier. According to census 2001 there are 34 males to 100 females among the elderly in Mpumalanga.
Most stay in rural areas, with even those who worked in the cities returning to rural areas when reaching pensionable age to reconnect with their extended families. Elderly women, especially, are vulnerable to discriminatory cultural practices, which either exclude them or limit their inheritances within the family. Women also have less say within the family.
In some places, accusations of witchcraft had been targeted at older women, which lead to stigmatisation and ostracising. The elderly usually experience bad service at hospitals and pension pay points and are told "we cannot renew you, you are old, and there is nothing to be done with old people".
There is also the generation gap. Mr Makiwane says the elderly give their services to an increasingly ungrateful younger generation. Older people overwhelmingly feel that children have less respect for the older generation and older people are unable to discipline their children and grandchildren.
- The AIDS crisis has necessitated a need to foster a new intergenerational understanding and co-operation, the researchers conclude. "There is a need to recognise the heavy burden laid by our society on older people by giving them more subsidies on basic foodstuff and services and provide necessary information so as to cope with the new role placed on them.
Moreover, a concerted effort to promote intergenerational relations was "urgently needed in South Africa," the Council advised.
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