Africa’s population is ageing, just like in the rest of the world, but the continent’s governments are badly equipped to handle the growing number of older people.
That’s the main conclusion of a new report from the African Development Bank (AfDB).
The percentage of people aged over 65 in Africa has grown to 3.6 percent in 2010 from 3.3 percent in 2000.
And it is a long-term phenomenon. There has been a steady increase over the last 40 years, and it will accelerate in coming years.
The elderly could account for 4.5 percent of the continent’s population by 2030, and almost 10 percent by 2050. In some countries, the proportion of older people will almost match that of industrialised countries by 2030 and 2050.
In some African countries, that future has already arrived, with percentages of elderly people much higher than the continental average. The proportion of over-65s in Tunisia is 7.3 percent, and in Mauritius it is 6.9 percent.
The elderly population in those two countries has nearly doubled over the last 20 years, and other countries such as Botswana, South Africa and Libya have followed a similar pattern.
The statistics in the report run contrary to accepted wisdom in much of the western world which views Africa as a place with low life expectancy. Life expectancy on the continent is still lower than in developed countries, but it is increasing.
Life expectancy at birth in Africa was 52.7 years in 1990, but had risen to 56 years by 2010.
The greatest increases in the older population have occurred in middle-income African countries, such as Mauritius, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Other countries such as Libya, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Djibouti have also witnessed fast growth among the elderly population.
However, unlike many developed countries, African nations are in general not best equipped to deal with the rise in numbers of older people.
The main concerns are healthcare provision and pensions.
In much of Africa, governments spend far less on health care than in most of the developed world. In 2005, 48 of the 54 African countries spent an average of less than USD 26 per capita on healthcare. Instead, people tend to pay their doctors and hospital bills directly – private households in Africa spent more than USD 58 per capita in the same year.
However, sometimes that money is hard to find. The AfDB report quotes a study of 15 African countries where many poorer people had to borrow or sell property to pay for healthcare.
The problem is compounded by a deterioration in traditional patterns of family support in Africa, due to growing urbanisation and – is some African countries – the effects of HIV/Aids.
Many elderly people in Africa are burdened with childcare because of the HIV/Aids related deaths of parents. The report quotes UNICEF statistics showing that more than 50 percent of orphans in Africa live with their grandparents, many on limited and uncertain incomes.
The healthcare problem is critical because of the long-term chronic conditions associated with growing old, such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory disorders and dementia.
While these are problems experienced by older population all over the world, the report suggests that they will increase faster in developing countries, where the system is less capable of dealing with them, than in the developed world.
Nor do many older Africans have even a small pension to rely on. The report says: ‘Contributory pension schemes cover very few people due to the informality of most livelihood activities and employment. Most societies are predominantly rural and much of the population operates outside the security of formal sector, wage-dependent markets.’
An added factor, the report notes, is that African governments tend not to pay much attention to the issue of an ageing population. Attention has been diverted, it says, by other urgent and pressing demographic problems.
They include rapid population growth, resulting in high numbers of young people and high youth unemployment, as well as high child and maternal mortality rates and a growing urban population.
Younger people are more vocal and visible than the elderly. Also, governments may pay more attention to them because of the fear of social and political unrest.
Even so, the report recommends that governments should include the ageing issue in their policy planning – by adapting their national budgetary provision, boosting pension and social protection schemes, targeting health care, and supporting community and family care.