Oktober 1, 2003

Chronic poverty among aged

A quarter of all older people living in South Africa may be classified as chronically poor, with most living in households earning less than US $100 per month. According to a recent report commissioned by HelpAge International (HAI), South Africa has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in Africa, with a particular increase in the 64- to 74-year age category, from 25.8 percent of the total population of older people in 1996, to 26.5 percent in 1999.

The report, "Chronic Poverty and Older People", noted that while the aged in South Africa continued to work well into the later stages of ageing, fulfilling an important economic role in the household, "chronic poverty reduces the options of older people to move from producer to consumer". HAI noted that in some cases acute poverty was brought on by events during the period of "near old age". These events, such as the death of a spouse, the report suggested, had a negative impact on the future well-being of older people, because it stripped the aged of assets accumulated during their economically active years.

Pensions were often the only source of income in the family. Moreover, pension-sharing was seen as an integral coping mechanism in cash-strapped households. The study highlighted that pension-sharing was often seen as conducive to the social integration of old age pensioners. Many of the female interviewees provided child care without payment in cash or kind, and a quarter provided the accommodation where the family was living without financial assistance.

In the northern Limpopo province, older women often helped with harvesting, stamping maize, cutting grass for thatching, helping with the sick and providing income from sources other than a pension, such as working for farmers. Some older men contributed by carving plates, spoons and sculptures for the household, or to sell."Indeed, it is alarming to note that almost 20 percent of 'frail old' people are still collecting water, and that chronically poor people in this age group are more than twice as likely to be collecting wood and water than the 'not-poor,'" the report said.

HAI highlighted earlier research, conducted between 1996 and 1998, which showed that the poor old were more likely to have experienced illness or disability than non-poor older persons of all ages. A chief concern among the poor old was access to health care and financial resources to meet the need for food, clothing, affordable transportation and community services.

Research also showed that older rural dwellers had a lower level of education and poorer health status, and that fewer received a government pension than their urban counterparts. "Yet, more older urban dwellers (particularly women) were depressed, felt less respected by the family, and were far less satisfied with their living arrangements than were rural dwellers," the report noted.

Overcrowding in urban areas was the main cause of dissatisfaction among the old. However, the extended family was seen as an important safety net for the old. There were also concerns over abuse among the poor old. During a survey prepared for the South Africa's health department, 53 percent of older people interviewed had reported personal experience of abuse. The three main types of abuse were psychological, financial and general maltreatment.

The aged were playing an increasing role in supporting family members living with HIV/AIDS or children orphaned by the disease. Grandmothers in the study complained of the lack of funds to take sick members of the family to hospital or pay for funeral expenses. The report concluded that because chronic poverty was not yet an "analytical concept" adopted by South African policy-makers, "most policy does not specifically target the chronically poor". HAI called for further research into the living conditions of the aged, with a particular focus on how public policy intervention could reverse the negative impact of poverty on the aged. (IRIN)

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