Pensioner Elizabeth Segwale in front of her shack in Nellmaphius Extension 22 in Mamelodi East. She was among more than 300 residents who were relocated by the City from Phomolong informal settlement.Picture: Jacques Naude / ANA

JOHANNESBURG - The United Nations recognises the 1st October as the International Day of Older Persons. In South Africa, we commemorate the day as part of a national Older Persons Week and Social Development Month. 

Madiba once said: “a society that does not value its older people denies its roots and endangers its future” So how do we fare when it comes to our senior population?

According to Stats SA, more than half of the 4,6 million people in South Africa who are over the age of 60, are living in households where everyone is unemployed. Within the Western Cape, we assist over 2,000 elder persons through our Senior Clubs and home-based care, and we have witnessed first-hand the reliance by entire families on the Older Person’s Grant. Within this family dynamic, seniors are often last in the queue to receive a hot meal or healthcare, simply due to a lack of resources. 

We’ve also seen that many seniors become second-generation parents to their grandchildren, often without any support or acknowledgement of their contribution to society for doing so.

Although these are the men and women that bore the brunt of the struggle for equality in this country, today they are often forgotten, neglected and even abused.  Another challenge is the lack of accessible and functioning facilities for elderly persons. For example, there are no relevant facilities within the Gugulethu, Khayelitsha and Langa areas, meaning that seniors who require specialist care are taken away from their communities and families to areas that can assist them. 

In the 30 operational years of our Seniors Programme, we have seen the neglect and abuse increase and the overall situation worsen, which is indicative of our straining economy and rising unemployment. Surprisingly, the elderly are often seen as incompetent, incapable and untrained and are therefore almost entirely excluded from the workforce – regardless of whether they want to continue to work or not. 

This generation relies heavily on civil society and NGOs for support and employment opportunities. While government does partner with these entities, it is simply not equipped to reach individuals face-to-face or to seek out individuals who require more help. 

We have witnessed first-hand that Seniors at our clubs do become economically active, cognitively stimulated, take ownership of their health, participate actively in forums, and importantly; learn about their rights and stand up for themselves.

By caring for our seniors, we ensure healthy caregivers and mentors for the youth, and provide a model of active, supported ageing.  We need to provide preventative and ongoing care so that they can remain mentally and physically fit enough to continue contributing to the economy and community.

In my experience, if allowed the opportunity, the elderly hold their community together through their wisdom and resilience. So, whilst a lot is being done by organisations such as ours to preserve dignity and support ageing, we believe that we have a far way to go before we can, as a nation, proudly stand up and claim that we value our elderly.  

Lulama Sigasana is the Head of the Seniors Programme at Ikamva Labantu