By Henry Abraham
Much is said about the growing numbers of young people across Africa, including Ghana. With 39% of Ghana’s population under the age of 15 we are solidly in the group of countries with a young population (defined as 35% or more of the population being less than 15 years). We are behind quite a few other African countries, including our Nigerian cousins where more than 42% of their much larger population is aged under 15. And it is worth noting that the percentage of Ghana’s population that is under 15 years old has been gradually falling. Nonetheless there is clearly a big challenge for Ghana in ensuring our wealth of young people are able to find the opportunities they need to build their own lives and help develop Ghana.
Less attention is given to the fact that Ghana is also part of the worldwide mega-trend towards an increasingly large proportion of elderly people (defined here as aged 60 or over). The proportion has risen from just 4.5% in 1960 to around 7% now, and is projected to rise to 14% by 2050: that is, over the next 30 years, the proportion of the population aged over 60 will double. The increasing proportion of elderly people in the population reflects both welcome increases in life expectancy as nutrition, health services and disease control improve, and reductions in fertility rates that are also reflected in the gradual decline in the proportion of young people in the population referred to above.
Ghana’s increasing numbers of elderly face huge challenges on both economic and social fronts.
Only 1.5% (about 1 in every 70) elderly Ghanaians have had a higher education, and 60% have no formal educational qualifications at all. 60% of the elderly remain economically active (though as to be expected, economic activity rates decline with increasing age), and a majority of those economically active are food crop farmers. On the other hand, less than 10% of elderly Ghanaians currently have access to even the typically modest pensions awarded through the state pension system. These statistics highlight the reality that most elderly Ghanaians are poor.
Reinforcing the impact of these economic challenges is the waning traditional family support and social integration system for elderly people, where younger family members would provide for their elderly relatives’ needs, and gain from their experience. Urbanisation, migration and the pressures of the increasingly formalised economy on workers (for example in restricting the ability to take time off at short notice to care for a sick relative) are all important drivers of this change.
There is also, as usual, a political undertone to our priorities. The young are, of course, a much more likely source of revolution and overthrow of the political class than the old. The noisy hinge gets the oil, here in the form of political attention and funding that aims to address their ills enough to quieten them.
But I believe there is another deeper issue at play. Our growing disregard for the elderly is a synecdouche: it is symbolic of our larger loss of respect for our own history and culture, in favour of what we see as modernity. Or put another way, there is a spiritual element to this disregard, where we not only often treat our elderly badly, but in the course of that, lose a part of our own souls, the part which represents our links to our own family, community and country’s culture and heritage.
There are a range of things that should be done to address the needs of Ghana’s elderly, many of which are set out in the National Ageing Policy “Ageing with security and dignity” of 2010. This had the laudable over-arching goal of achieving the social, economic and cultural re-integration of older persons into mainstream society, and to enable them as far as practicable to participate fully in the national development process. Sadly, ten years on, it seems clear that only limited progress has been made towards this goal.
In an ideal world, elderly Ghanaians would be provided with a non-contributory pension, given so few of them have worked in the formal economy and the decline in family support networks to look after them. However, that’s not going to happen anytime soon, as the cost would be high and the political imperative is lacking. In the medium term, the drive towards formalisation of the economy will help, as those now working start making pension contributions which will fund their pensions post retirement. But right now, the only way in which major improvements in economic conditions for Ghana’s elderly will happen is if we collectively reverse current social trends, and families and friends (including neighbours, churches, mosques and other networks) give higher priority to their welfare.
This is not just a moral challenge, but also a spiritual one. Supporting our elderly better will not be a drain, but a gain!
If you would like to find out more about an innovative NGO seeking to tackle challenges for Ghana’s elderly, look up the Association of Ghana Elders at ageafrica.com.