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Imagination Needed to End Loneliness in Older Age

Published in: Daily Maverick
Florence Limekaya, 79, in her one-room home at the Helen Joseph Women’s Hostel in Alexandra, Johannesburg. She has lived in this apartheid-era hostel since 1980. © 2023 Taurai Maduna/Human Rights Watch

“Older people are just literally left on their own.”

The distress in Nosiphiwo Tetana’s voice is apparent as she talks about older people isolated at home without care and support. The community center she manages in Dimbaza, Eastern Cape, is severely underfunded and unable to meet the demand.

Almost three decades since the end of apartheid, South Africa’s laws have come a long way in addressing discriminatory policies of the past. But when it comes to protecting the rights of older people,  many are still facing poverty, loneliness, and isolation.

It is a legacy of spending at least half their lives under a government whose racial segregation policies displaced many and denied the majority of black African, coloured, and Indian/Asian people a good standard of education, decent work, and the ability to save for older age. The cumulative impact of that racial discrimination still affects older people today.

Policymakers have an opportunity to transform care for older people in the years ahead, creating a better future and ensuring that everyone in South Africa receives the care and support they are entitled to.

The first step is for the government to confront realities on the ground. Consider Rose Nduneni’s story.

Rose, 70, lives with her 18-year-old grandson who is at college all day. “I have to stay with the dogs,” she said. “That loneliness kills us.”

Rose has tried to join the community center for older people in Dimbaza since 2021. But insufficient government funding means that the center has had to turn her away. She said staff told her they “can’t afford any new members.”

Those suffering from loneliness are at risk of depression, cognitive decline, and dementia. They don’t sleep well and die earlier.

Social connection and a sense of belonging are critical at every stage of life, especially in older age. Community- and home-based care and support services can help reduce loneliness, build belonging, and enable older people to participate and live with dignity in their communities.

Few older people in South Africa have access to such services. Those with access are often limited to a lunch club or a sports or recreational activity. Fewer still get the support to live with dignity in their own homes. Nosiphiwo Tetana, manager of the Dimbaza Society for the Aged’s service center for older people, told us that, “Older people are just literally left on their own.”

In the 1960s, the government forcibly removed Marhafungana Silwanyana’s, 75, from Duncan Village to Mdantsane, where he worked for 40 years in East London harbor before retiring with no workplace pension. With chest pains and asthma and no nearby community- or home-based services, he sits at home all day. “The days are long and boring,” he said. “I didn’t think my life would be like this.”

Increased isolation also puts older people’s physical safety at risk. A government social worker told us that older people are exposed to various dangers, like gender-based violence, rape, and murder, when they are isolated and not getting needed home-based care and support.

South Africa’s Older Persons Act, which went into effect in 2010, aims to combat abuse of older people and uphold their right to participate in community life. But there is a disconnect between law and practice.

The government’s current targets for are based on available budgets, not actual need. There are disparities in provincial plans to increase access to services and a lack of coordination between government departments Non-profit organizations contracted to deliver the services struggle with insufficient government funding and government-imposed restrictions on what services they can provide.

“They want us to fit into a template, a standardized way, not customized,” said Tetana, the service center manager. “The funding does not speak to the needs of this center.”

A lack of policy imagination—that is, the inability to see beyond current systems—also contributes to the problem, especially given policymakers’ continued over-reliance on family support for the vast majority of older people Not everyone has a family willing and able to provide support. This may hinder the development of community- and home-based care and support services that are accessible for all.

This isn’t just a question of resource allocation. It’s a fundamental moral imperative rooted in notions of ubuntu, dignity, belonging, and human rights, which do not lessen in magnitude or importance as we age.

The government, in collaboration with civil society and older people themselves, should build systems that prioritize social connectedness and dignity in older age.

A good starting point is for the government to determine the number of older people who require community- and home-based care and support services. Decision-makers should also allocate sufficient funding to service providers so they can effectively deliver what older people want and require.

Then and only then, people like Rose and Marhafungana can find the belonging that they long for and the dignity that is their right.

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