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Southern Africa: Vulnerable elderly ignored

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JOHANNESBURG, 15 May (IRIN) - Extreme food shortages and HIV/AIDS are forcing the elderly in Southern Africa to become breadwinners all over again, HelpAge said on Wednesday.
The organisation recently conducted a study on the plight of the elderly in Southern Africa and found that grandparents are using their meagre resources to fill the void left by their children who are either searching for work in the cities, or who are too sick to work. In some families where the children have been orphaned, grandparents have stepped in as the main caregivers.

Malawi and Zimbabwe are worst hit, where both governments have already declared national disasters and pleaded for help for the millions who face starvation.

"Older people are shouldering immense responsibility in the face of food shortages and they face a multiplicity of problems," Tavengwa Nhongo, HelpAge regional representative for Africa told IRIN.

When old people manage to find food, the shortages push the price up so they can't afford it. They don't have access to regular income and many, especially those who worked in the agricultural and domestic sectors, don't even have pensions.

"They retired and were told to go back to their rural homes with nothing," Nhongo said adding that Namibia, Botswana and South Africa are the only countries in Southern Africa to give government pensions.

They depend on their children to be responsible and send money and they also try and find work in the informal sector and on the land. Recent problems with rainfall - either too little or too much - has affected their opportunities in agricultural work.

Nhongo said HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa left old people to shoulder the responsibility of looking after their own sick children. Then they have to look after their grandchildren when their children die.

"It is not uncommon to find older people looking after up to 17 children. The sheer numbers they have to deal with are extremely daunting in the face of the food shortages. They have to provide food and clothing and even if school fees are free they have to pay levies and buy uniforms.

"They have to start afresh as breadwinners to look after those children. I saw in Malawi last year how old people gave food to children then tied cloth around their own stomach when they went to sleep so they wouldn't feel the hunger," Nhongo said.

"People are dying of starvation - they are actually starving. People are relying on wild foods which are seasonal and not always available."

When things get that bad, parents will try anything to secure food. They even leave their villages and go to cities where they hope to beat the high unemployment figures and find a job. This leaves older people exposed as they look after children with their own dwindling energy levels.

"Old people are ignored - painfully so - by aid organisations," Nhongo said.

"They are the last to be looked at in the face of any interventions. Aid organisations look first at women, pregnant women, and children. Older people are considered last in every catastrophe and their needs are addressed last, they are evacuated last and resettled last."

They complain that their knowledge of communities is not sought during aid agency assessments.

Nhongo said the HelpAge report hoped to create awareness of the problems older people face and hoped aid agencies would consider them in their intervention strategies.

"Older people are key in ensuring that families survive but they experience such negative attitudes," he said.


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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2002