International Day of Older Persons: “Each Time An Elder Dies; A Library Closes”

by Pearl P Mashabane


A colleague of mine was invited to present a paper on the state of older persons in Africa and implored me to share my views on the same. My initial response to the topic was that of disinterested and I almost dismissed it. Who thinks about older persons? We hardly see them on TV; get no friend request from them on facebook or any following on twitter. In newspapers, we turn to the death notices pages to confirm the silence of their voices.

And so thinking about older persons seemed like an arduous task. I had to cross the borders of the obvious spaces and places to search for their faces and voices. In a city like New York, I locate them in retirement homes, playing bingo, taking walks in Central Park or taking a metro bus to run their errands. Besides the often-cited loneliness of being separated from family and the aches and pains of the golden years, they seem to be at a restful and peaceful time of their lives.

Crossing oceans to think about older persons in my home country, South-Africa and the spaces they occupy in public life, the first picture that comes to mind is one that I saw in a local newspaper a few months ago.

News headlines captured the plight of grandmothers having to brave crossing crocodile infested rivers to collect their social grants every month: an unnecessary balance between starvation and death. What is the local government doing? What does it take to build a bridge?

I think about those who have to share their meager social grants and living space with their children and grandchildren, in the backdrop of a high unemployment rate. It is sometimes for those little pennies that their lives are taken violently at the hands of frustrated youths.

In big cities and small villages alike, elderly people are now the primary caregivers and surrogate parents to AIDS orphans. Watching their own children succumb to premature death, comforting hurting grandchildren, administering ARV’s and risking infections. Such is the new lot of being an elder. Gone are the days of raising grandchildren out of choice and pleasure. Sharing stories and myths of old to a new generation is a luxury and retiring peacefully is now a pipedream for many.

Yet in spite of carrying the nation’s load on their broken backs, one really does have to look hard to find the space for older people in our socio-political discourse, not just in Africa but the world abroad.

When drafting our development agenda, we think women, youth and other minorities. At what point do we stop and think about what the needs of the elderly are? What happened to the reverence given to the proverbial words of wisdom gleaned from the life experiences of our fore bearers?

Do the words of Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Olusegun Obasanjo and our own grandparents still hold the same reverence once held? How would the course of our lives journeys be altered if we reserved space for them when charting complicated personal, national and international milestones?

Do we still have space for them in public life or are their voices confined to the enclaves of remote villages and retirement homes where they will patiently await an invitation from us during election times when we will dangle free housing, assure them of continued social grants and promise to build that elusive bridge across the river in exchange for their votes?

Will the library of their wisdom and experiences be shut down each time we turn our newspapers to the death notices section?

These thoughts ought to linger daily beyond the UN International Day of Older persons, which is observed on the 1st of October annually.

Visit to read about the Elders, an independent group of global leaders brought together by President Nelson Mandela in 2007 to work together for peace and human rights issues. Long live to all the Elders!

God Bless Afrika!

Pearl P Mashabane


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