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Defining "Old Age". Markers of old age in sub-Saharan Africa and the implications for cross-cultural research.



While ageing is an inevitable and irreversible biological process, both the onset and the meaning of old age are culturally constructed. The yardsticks people employ to determine who is, or is not, old can differ widely from culture to culture, if not from situation to situation. In a fundamental sense, old age is not a property of individuals but a social construction. Most sociological descriptions of old age and ageing in Africa have nevertheless simply employed a chronometric framework, derived from Western gerontology. As a rule, gerontological studies conducted in Africa have chosen age 50 (e.g. Cattell 1989), 55 (e.g. Togonu-Bickersteth 1986), 60 (e.g. Peil 1985) or 65 (e.g. Mugabe 1994) as marking the start of later life. The most commonly chosen age limit has been 60 years, a choice which has its origins in the respective definition of the United Nations and the First World Assembly on Ageing (United Nations 1982). Other researchers (e.g. Peil, Bamisaiye and Ekpenyong 1989) defined the onset of old age with reference to the age of eligibility for state social security programs or pensions, which in Africa ranges from 55 to 65 years, or with reference to average life expectancy in a country (e.g. Folta and Deck 1987). How does one judge these definitions? To what extent do they relate to the people’s perceptual models? Are they congruent with African life experiences or do they conflate the attributes of ageing in Africa with the attributes of old age in industrial societies? Or more fundamentally, is there a particular form of ageing and old age in Africa and if so, how should we define it? Should Africa have its own definition of old age? Should we determine it chronologically? Clearly, these questions are obvious, but the answers of determining them are quite complex. Looking to the existing gerontological research work in sub-Saharan Africa, we find no really adequate treatment of these problems. Of course, this reflects both the lack of quantitative information as well as the continuing lack of qualitative in-depth studies. The problem is compounded by the fact that many studies have been biased both by the chronological orientation of the observers and their failing to examine the cultural constructions of ageing among the peoples they have studied. This applies likewise to many anthropological studies of societies in sub-Saharan Africa – if they had regard for the subject of old age at all (cf. Fry 1999; Rubinstein 1990). As anthropologist Nancy Foner (1984) has succinctly pointed out, “often we are left wondering what particular ethnographers mean when they say someone is “old”” that is, whether they refer to their own or their informants’ view when they use the very term.” The intent of this paper is first to describe, in broad outline, the major dimensions of constructions of old age in African societies, then to discuss the findings in terms of the above mentioned questions. The description hereby follows the lead of Glascock (1980) who identified three fundamental criteria for defining the boundaries of old age: (a) lifetime/chronology; (b) functionality; (c) social attributes and/or transitions. However, one caveat is necessary before the discussion can begin: the ethnic, cultural and politicoeconomic heterogeneity of the sub-Saharan social landscape greatly complicates any simple description and analysis of “African” old age: old age means a range of things to different African cultures and communities. Yet, a continent-wide topical treatment of age is an useful enterprise, as it may help us to reflect on central differences in the construction of old age between Euro-American and African cultures. In doing so, it can indicate some of the ways in which researchers may develop a realistic working definition of “old” in Africa that is comparable with “the” Euro-American notion of old age, as used in Western gerontology. In short, the goal of this paper is not to determine any commonalities of existence for old people in sub-Saharan Africa but to establish the boundaries of acceptability of a definition of old age for the purposes of comparison, research and action.
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... De plus, cette région est caractérisée par une transformation lente des structures par âge qui ne laisse pas transparaitre la croissance rapide de cette frange de la population (Masquelier & Kanté, 2017) dont les effectifs pourraient tripler dans les trente prochaines années (United Nations, 2019). En revanche, si l'on retient plutôt la limite de 50 ans comme recommandée par l'Organisation mondiale de la santé pour la définition des personnes âgées en Afrique subsaharienne (Ferreira & Kowal, 2006;Kowal et al., 2010;Kowal et al., 2000Sagner et al., 2002), cette population est estimée à 9,9% en 2019 et pourrait passer à 14,8% à l'horizon 2050. La figure 1 ci-dessous reprend l'évolution passée et la projection future de la population des personnes âgées dans cette région du monde. ...
... Moreover, this region is characterized by a slow transformation of age structures that does not make apparent the rapid growth of this segment of the population (Masquelier & Kanté, 2017), whose numbers could triple in the next thirty years (United Nations, 2019). On the other hand, if we take the age limit of 50 years as recommended by the World Health Organization for the definition of older adults in sub-Saharan Africa (Ferreira & Kowal, 2006;Kowal et al., 2010;Kowal et al., 2000Sagner et al., 2002), this population is estimated at 9.9% in 2019 and could rise to 14.8% by 2050. Figure 1 below shows the past evolution and future projection of older adult population in this region of the world. In countries such as Ghana, Rwanda, Gabon and South Africa, it could increase from 11.9% to 18. 9%, 10.7% to 19%, 11.2% to 20.2% and 16.6% to 27.4% respectively (United Nations, 2019). ...
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Since independence, efforts to reduce mortality have focused on child and maternal mortality, which is considered too high. Subsequently, analyses of maternal mortality have been extended to adults in general (15 to 50 or even 60 years old). Beyond these ages, mortality studies remain poorly documented due to the lack of adequate civil registration. The numerous errors in age are sources of bias and make it difficult to produce estimates. The aim of this doctoral dissertation is therefore to contribute to improving the state of knowledge on the mortality of adults aged 50-79. The option of restricting the analyses to the under-80s is intended to limit the effect of age errors which can be extreme at very old ages. Starting with a review of existing methods, we examine the extent to which a judicious use of these methods can make it possible to estimate the levels and trends of mortality in older adults by exploiting different sources (censuses, household sample surveys, population surveillance systems) available for several countries in the sub-Saharan region.
... Older adults constitute an important target group of VR technology due to cognitive aging [10]. As the human brain and cognition change across the life span, such interventions might be especially applicable in aging populations. ...
... A review of prevalence studies that recruited participants at 60 years and older revealed that the prevalence estimates of MCI ranged from 16% to 20% for the majority of the reviewed studies [14]. Moreover, a certain degree of cognitive decline is also observed in normal aging, especially within some aspects of memory, and attention, processing speed, executive function and reasoning [10,15]. In conclusion, the spectrum of cognitive decline ranges from normal cognitive aging to dementia. ...
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This chapter begins with a description of Kenya and its people, their historical experiences relevant to the situation of elders today, and current demographics. Early research on aging in Kenya was by anthropologists. Today there are many more players, including various international organizations pushing for more research and government policies and programs to assist elders, for example, Kenya’s Older Persons Cash Transfer Programme, a non-contributory pension for all citizens aged 70+ whose benefits often reach beyond the recipients to improve the lives of their families.
Sixty years is determined as yardstick to designate a person as elderly in India, but that criterion has little relevance in the context of the tribal elderly due to low life expectancy. Based on the qualitative research design, the study reveals that elderhood is something that is not merely limited within the chronological age (sixty years benchmark); rather, it is culturally constructed. Elderhood starts in the fourth decade of life, as emerged from the analysis of narratives of the studied community. However, the status of the tribal elderly is valued within the community as they are considered as reservoir of traditional and customary knowledge that is essential for survival in a hostile environment. Furthermore, the study explicates the other dimensions of subjective well-being of tribal elderly and its associated socio-cultural attributes.
Thusfar, African gerontologists have not attended to precolonial ageing, except to subscribe to a ‘timeless ‘perspective rooted in modernization theory‘s 'golden age narrative.' This paper sketches some dimensions of the ageing experience in a pre-industrial African "nation”, the Xhosa-speaking societies in South Africa. It begins with a reconstruction of precolonial residence patterns and the economic status of elderly persons before it turns to the issue of cultural representations of ageing and old age in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Notwithstanding the intimate association of (male) ageing with accumulation of economic resources, the belief in ancestors functioned as a fundamental instrument by which old-age authority was upheld, apart from its colouring the very notion of Xhosa old age. Having examined the religious basis of the ageing experience, finally the gendered nature of old-age security is discussed. In a nutshell, it is argued that even though age was different in social and cultural terms — and was thus an important aspect of any individual's identity, age alone never defined any person’s economic status or social identity. Gender and kinship, but also biographically conditioned factors, affected the experience of old age. The notion of old age as an abstract entity is a Western-based construct which reflects an ageist conception, i.e. (chronological) old age as the determinant of old people's identity, and the inadequate comprehension of other prime social processes that moulded the lives of elderly persons rather than the reality of old age in precolonial Xhosa communities.