Old age is never avoidable but is not necessarily achievable. Millions of people die at young age due to illness, natural and man-made disasters as well as civil wars and accidents.
Justice and sustained life for senior members of any society including female and male elderly has already become a major advocacy issue throughout the world. In Ethiopia although there are basic legal and constitutional provisions to ascertain justice for the elderly and in spite of favourable social welfare policies, much has not been done to address the plight of the elderly in a sustainable manner.
Ethiopia's population pyramid shows that the majority of its population falls under the age of fifteen. In addition the triangular structure of the country's population pyramid also reveals the fact that people aged sixty four and above comprise 3 per cent of the population.
Despite the high rate of two digit economic growth, welfare is still a neglected issue where the government has paid more attention to agriculture, energy sectors and roads.
The government's negligence of welfare has had negative impacts on the lives of elderly people the majority of whom are without secured means of income in the later stage of their lives
The welfare mix describes the whole pattern of resources and programmes that can in principle rectify insecurity and improve well-being in a society. These include: local communal practices, non-governmental organizations, informal markets and household livelihood strategies
Ethiopia's welfare mix comprises of government service, humanitarian relief (by donor, international and local NGOs, informal provisions by local institutions and networks that attempt to meet consumption, health and other needs of the older persons. Even though it is not enough, it is the combination of this mix that tries to alleviate the hardship people face including the elderly.
For example when it comes to the care of the elderly, the government, the family and NGOs are the ones that strive to meet their needs. The government provides pensions to employees of the public sector. But this excludes those that are self-employed and those who never had the chance to be public sector employees.
Lack of practical strategy to address the poverty among destitute elderly has multiplied the misery of the elderly who are either detached from their families or are forced to live by begging on the streets of Ethiopian towns. Even the major religious institutions and churches are not doing enough to support the elderly so that they can live a dignified life.
Age induced disease like upper respiratory infections, TB and several other types of diseases affect the elderly. In the absence of government sponsored health insurance system, hundreds and thousands of poor elderly will not have healthcare services that they badly need at old age.
Older persons not only maintain the continuity of traditions and culture of the society they are also sources of traditional wisdom and history of Ethiopia. Older persons are encountered with various problems which eventually expose them to begging due to the absence of the necessary family and community support. Hence it is common to see that older persons who have the knowledge and skill to help not only themselves but others are facing serious problems and resort to begging.
Reports from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs indicate that Ethiopia is one among the poorest countries in the world with 44.2 per cent of its population living below poverty line. Apart from the known current causes that exacerbate poverty among the elderly, recurrent drought, absence of good governance and lack of legal support are some among the many problems facing the country.
The Report further notes that these problems together with the modern way of life caused by growing urbanization and modernization are now eroding the culture of intergenerational solidarity and mutual support that has been existing for a very long time and this increased the vulnerability of the society in general and older persons in particular.
Poverty become more acute among older persons because once they are exposed to it, it is much more difficult for them to come out of it.
Health problems, lack of balanced diet, shelter, unsuitable residential areas, absence of family and community support, absence of social welfare coverage, limited social security services, absence of education and training opportunities, limited employment and income generating opportunities are some of the factors contributing to the poverty of older persons.
On the other hand HIV/AIDS is further complicating the problems of older persons. Older persons are being left helpless and without support as result of the death of their off springs caused by HIV/AIDS.
They are exposed to poverty as they expend their limited asset and income to take care and pay the bills of their children infected by the virus. In spite of their being old, they are also shouldering the responsibility of bringing up their grand children in the country who lost their parents due to HIV/AIDS. At present there are about 1.2 million children who lost their parents and most of them are provided care by their grandparents.
Because the belief that the elderly are not exposed to HIV/AIDS, the great majorities of them are not included in HIV/AIDS prevention and control programmes as result of which they are not benefiting from such programmes.
In spite of the existence of cultural discrimination against women which deprives them the right to make decision regarding income and properties, women in all age groups and older women in particular provide service that cannot be measured in monetary terms.
They take care of and look after children, patients and older persons. They do all these without any payment or support and this has made their life much, more difficult and cumbersome.
Currently, problems of older persons are receiving better attention worldwide. Much effort is being made to alleviate their problems. At a national level, the government and non-governmental organizations as well as association of retired persons have now started to make greater efforts in tackling problems of the elderly but still there is more to be desired.
Due to the absence of networking and inability to streamline the activities of the concerned bodies in conducting in depth study and designing and implementing programmes and projects and due to the absence monitoring and evaluation systems and lack of implementation capacity, it has been difficult to improve the lives of the elderly to a significantly better level.
All concerned bodies, including the government and major stakeholders need to work together to support the elderly so that they can enjoy better life at their age. The private sector, the government and non-governmental organizations operating in the country need to specially target those elderly who have no means of livelihood.
Special social fund earmarked to assist the elderly in drought affected areas should be established to address the special needs of the elderly in Ethiopia. This would also include protecting the legal rights of the elderly to their own property and the property that they have acquired either through gifts or special donations.
The Ethiopian government needs to arrange free legal and social services for the elderly as this sector of our society is the pride of the country. Attaining an old age is a blessing and respectful trend. The younger is an upshot of the older generation. Change and continuity in age is inevitable if a society is to continue in a sustained manner.