Africa is becoming a continent of the aged, whose problems are increasing as the extended African family dissolves. In 20 years, the number of elderly people in Africa will have doubled to some 42 million, says William Kerrigan, the American secretary-general of the World Assembly on Aging, a United Nations body. The over-60 age group will rise at a faster rate than the rest of the population, due to rising life expectancy and declining birthrates.
"All regions of the world are experiencing an aging of their populations as the proportion of elderly people to the young is increasing," Mr. Kerrigan says.
This situation creates social and economic problems that will be felt most severely in developing countries, where rapid modernization is eroding traditional support structures for the elderly, he says.
The deterioriation of the "extended family" is the most important aspect of Africa's problem, according to Mr. Kerrigan.
Traditionally, the family is the most important institution in the life of the African, and the aged have always depended on the extended family to serve their needs. In turn, the elderly have a meaningful family role, often as spiritual and moral leader of the family, but also as custodian of family values and economic assets in land and livestock.
But urvanization, industrialization, and education are undermining the traditional system. The elderly are being left behind in rural areas as the young move to cities. Experts, such as those attending regional meetings in Africe and preparing for an international meeting that the UN has scheduled for July 1982 in vienna, believe the extended family must not be allowed to break up.
At one of these meetings in Lagos, officials said some of the health problems of the elderly arise from the feeling of not being needed, not "belonging," and not being a part of society. They expressed opposition to the Western practice of institutionalizing the aged, recommending instead community-based services for old people. They noted that depression and some diseases that appear common to older people in the West are not seen much in Africa.
In Kenya, the problem has not hit very hard yet, but citizens are beginning to address the issue. The nation's National Council of social Services has recommended that the government reduce fares on buses and trains, arrange special seats for the aged, and initiate pension plans regardless of whether an elderly individual has worked. The council also recommends rent subsidies, new housing, special hospital wards for the aged, and tax relief for families looking after aging relatives.
The council has analyzed housing in nairobi and suggested that rooms be provided for elderly parents so they can live with their children in the urban areas.
In eastern Africa the extended family is on the decline but is still a social-security network. Families often take in out-of-work cousins, aunts, and uncles, as well as immediate family members hit by high unemployment.