The sight of an elderly person caring for children with Aids-related illnesses — and grandchildren who may have been orphaned by the pandemic — has become a common one in Namibia, and the Southern African region as a whole.
According to the 2004 Common Country Assessment prepared for Namibia under the auspices of the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (Undaf), grandparents provide care for most orphans under the age of 18 who live in rural areas. These children accounted for up to 75% of the 156Â 000 children orphaned at the time of the assessment.
Undaf enables UN agencies to plan development programmes for individual countries; the framework also allows for cooperation between the UN system, governments and other parties involved in development.
But, have policies in Namibia kept pace with the extent to which the aged are taking on responsibility for sick children, and orphaned grandchildren?
Not really, says Marie Farmer, chief social worker at the ministry of health and social services.
“Older people are usually excluded from development programmes because they are regarded as old, that they cannot do anything,” she notes. “It is unfortunate that the focus for development and educational programmes primarily targets younger people — the economically and sexually active ones — but forgets about older people. But with HIV/Aids, society will start to value older people again.”
At present, there are no income-generating projects in Namibia that are specifically directed to the elderly, even though aged persons are often ill-equipped to take on the financial burden of caring for sick children — and raising orphaned grandchildren.
As a result, many are left to rely mostly on their monthly pension payouts of just more about R380, and foster-care grants if they take charge of children under the age of 16.
“Programmes of assistance to older people are centred on pensions, grants and accommodation. There were never really any good support programmes in place,” admits Petronella Masabane, deputy director at the health ministry.
Elderly caregivers of schoolchildren, she adds, can also apply for partial or full exemption concerning school development funds (as primary education in Namibia is free, no school fees are payable).
“The problem is that many older people may not know about it, or find it difficult to access these benefits due to their decreased mobility — and other limitations such as transport.”
It has become evident, however, that the aged do not only need financial assistance to cope with the pandemic.
An investigation conducted by health and social services officials in 2004, A Study on the Status and Living Conditions of Older People in Namibia, showed that 34% of elderly persons interviewed knew people who had died from Aids-related diseases, most of them close relatives. Almost 80% knew how HIV was spread.
But despite this evidence of HIV awareness, “[older] people remain embarrassed to talk about sex, and many do not believe that this is a disease. In some cultures there is the belief that people are bewitched,” says Farmer.
Such misconceptions may prevent the elderly from giving children in their care sound advice on how to avoid becoming infected — setting the stage for Aids to extend into another generation.
The aged might also find themselves at a loss when it comes to helping children deal with the trauma of living with sick and dying parents.
“I know for a fact that not much attention is given to counselling and other forms of assistance. Grandparents do not go for counselling,” says Farmer.
Discussions are currently under way in the government about specialised programmes for the elderly.
“We need to do a lot of sensitisation around … HIV/Aids to generate appreciation for the role of older people as primary care givers to orphans and vulnerable children,” notes Masabane.
A toolkit for the elderly is being designed in which the rights of aged persons will be dealt with, while efforts have also been made to ensure that older people have easier access to social grants. Although not yet tabled before Parliament, the Care and Protection of Older People’s Bill is expected to be passed later this year.
However, the shifting of certain welfare responsibilities from the ministry of health and social services to the ministry of gender equality and child welfare, and the ministry of labour and social welfare, has complicated efforts to bring policies in line with the new needs of Namibia’s aged. The labour ministry now gives grants to the elderly and people with disabilities.
“We are aware of … shortcomings [in policies for the aged] and the fact that something needs to be done to address this gap,” says Masabane.
“But we have to get policy and legislative frameworks in place before we can effectively embark upon a sustainable development programme in consultation, and with the participation, of older people.” — IPS