Why we should prioritise needs of older persons

Being young can be quite enchanting. However, growing old into the sixties can be quite scary when the reality of neglect stares at you. The number of older persons is increasing every day, globally. Population experts estimate that the greatest growth globally will be felt in Africa where health systems are unprepared.

Kenya is estimated to have about 2.9 million people at 65 years and older according to the 2009 national census. These longer lives are due to better health, declining fertility rates, improved economic status, better nutrition and a marked improvement in medical technology hence an early intervention in treatment of diseases.

The tenets that traditionally took care of our aging parents, aunties and uncles have shifted, become disintegrated, strained and almost non-existent. Increased urbanisation, rural-urban migration and a change in socialisation mindset are some of the reasons Kenya is becoming blind to support long term care for older persons.

At the global stage, the World Health Organisation is running a global campaign towards the realisation of long and healthy lives globally.  To attain this age-friendly world, this concept seeks to create opportunities where countries create the environments and opportunities that enable people do what they value throughout their lives.

We must also acknowledge that the HIV/Aids burden has played a role in reassigning roles to older people as providers and carers to their children and orphaned grandchildren. We need to invest in more research on aging in Kenya to understand their unique health for it to be considered from the national to the county level. Given the current population trends in Africa the continent risks growing old before she develops.

Mauritius, South Africa and Seychelles have social protection programmes yet Eastern Africa remains undecided on carving a docket that takes care of the older persons. Closer home, Kenya has a department at the Ministry of Health that plans taking care of older persons and the Constitution commits to address the rights of older persons. However this is not enough.

Few geriatric health experts

Kenya lacks a specific law both at the national and county levels that comprehensively promotes and protects their rights. There is need for concerted efforts beginning from public health education, training and in health facilities to explain the delicate role that older persons should hold. For example, as people grow older, their health needs change and they become more prone to falling ill to chronic diseases. In fact, the greatest killers of older people in developing countries are heart disease, stroke, diabetes, memory and vision loss.

Yet our health systems are disconnected and fragmented that these sub Saharan countries have no health specialists to take them through aging gracefully. Children have paeditricians, gynaecologists and obstetricians take care of female reproductive health needs and the various cadres of medicine like heart diseases have cardiologists and skin conditions are handled by dermatologist.

But who takes care of older persons?

Kenya does not have a single geriatrician, a doctor who specialises in the elderly and the diseases that affect them, either in private or public health facilities. With one medical gerontologist and two social gerontologists, Kenya’s needs remain a mirage if these specialists are not increased. We need to evoke a sense of interest in health workers to develop an interest in this area and increase training opportunities.

Investments needed

To solve the current dilemma we need to retrace our steps by promoting a positive culture that recognises and respects the dignity of older persons. Increased public health education will change the view that aging is a negative stage of life. Sensitisation of health workers is also needed to discourage them from sustaining the myth that aging is an undesirable phase of life.

All forms of abuse on and discrimination against older persons should also be discouraged and punished severely.

Henceforth, we will need to prioritise the long term care of older persons by developing legal frameworks of ageing. We will also need a tax-funded social protection system that recognises that they need special care into their golden years.

Health promotion programmes targeting older people and an improvement in the access to age-friendly health services will change their quality of life drastically. However these investments need to me anchored right from the county government to the national governments otherwise such efforts by will be like sand-filling a bottomless cylindrical glass.

In all, we cannot be entirely passive and forget to involve older people in leadership, decision making and other appropriate roles right from the family to the national level.