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Definition of an older person. Proposed working definition of an older person in Africa for the MDS Project.

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Abstract

Most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of 'elderly' or older person, but like many westernized concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa. While this definition is somewhat arbitrary, it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin to receive pension benefits. Although there are commonly used definitions of old age, there is no general agreement on the age at which a person becomes old. The common use of a calendar age to mark the threshold of old age assumes equivalence with biological age, yet at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not necessarily synonymous. As far back as 1875, in Britain, the Friendly Societies Act, enacted the definition of old age as, "any age after 50", yet pension schemes mostly used age 60 or 65 years for eligibility (Roebuck, 1979). The UN has not adopted a standard criterion, but generally use 60+ years to refer to the older population (UN, 2001).
The Minimum Data Set (MDS) Project on Ageing and Older Adults
in sub-Saharan Africa
2001
Paul Kowal
J. Edward Dowd
2001
Definition of an older person. Proposed working definition of an older person in Africa
for the MDS Project
1
Suggested citation: Kowal P, Dowd JE. Definition of an older person. Proposed working definition of an older
person in Africa for the MDS Project. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2001.
Most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of 'elderly'
or older person, but like many westernized concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa.
While this definition is somewhat arbitrary, it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin
to receive pension benefits. At the moment, there is no United Nations standard numerical criterion, but the
UN agreed cutoff is 60+ years to refer to the older population.
Although there are commonly used definitions of old age, there is no general agreement on the age at which
a person becomes old. The common use of a calendar age to mark the threshold of old age assumes
equivalence with biological age, yet at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not
necessarily synonymous.
As far back as 1875, in Britain, the Friendly Societies Act, enacted the definition of old age as, "any age after
50", yet pension schemes mostly used age 60 or 65 years for eligibility (Roebuck, 1979). The UN has not
adopted a standard criterion, but generally use 60+ years to refer to the older population (UN, 2001).
Realistically, if a definition in Africa is to be developed, it should be either 50 or 55 years of age, but even this
is somewhat arbitrary and introduces additional problems of data comparability across nations. The more
traditional African definitions of an elder or 'elderly' person correlate with the chronological ages of 50 to 65
years, depending on the setting, the region and the country. Adding to the difficulty of establishing a
definition, actual birth dates are quite often unknown because many individuals in Africa do not have an
official record of their birth date. In addition, chronological or "official" definitions of ageing can differ widely
from traditional or community definitions of when a person is older. We will follow the lead of the
developed worlds, for better or worse, and use the pensionable age limit often used by governments to set a
standard for the definition.
Lacking an accepted and acceptable definition, in many instances the age at which a person became eligible
for statutory and occupational retirement pensions has become the default definition. The ages of 60 and 65
years are often used, despite its arbitrary nature, for which the origins and surrounding debates can be
followed from the end of the 1800's through the mid-1900's. (Thane, 1978 & 1989; Roebuck 1979) Adding to
the difficulty of establishing a definition, actual birth dates are quite often unknown because many
individuals in Africa do not have an official record of their birth date.
Defining old
"The ageing process is of course a biological reality which has its own dynamic, largely beyond human
control. However, it is also subject to the constructions by which each society makes sense of old age. In the
developed world, chronological time plays a paramount role. The age of 60 or 65, roughly equivalent to
retirement ages in most developed countries, is said to be the beginning of old age. In many parts of the
developing world, chronological time has little or no importance in the meaning of old age. Other socially
constructed meanings of age are more significant such as the roles assigned to older people; in some cases it
is the loss of roles accompanying physical decline which is significant in defining old age. Thus, in contrast to
the chronological milestones which mark life stages in the developed world, old age in many developing
countries is seen to begin at the point when active contribution is no longer possible." (Gorman, 2000)
2
Age classification varied between countries and over time, reflecting in many instances the social class
differences or functional ability related to the workforce, but more often than not was a reflection of the
current political and economic situation. Many times the definition is linked to the retirement age, which in
some instances, was lower for women than men. This transition in livelihood became the basis for the
definition of old age which occurred between the ages of 45 and 55 years for women and between the ages
of 55 and 75 years for men. (Thane, 1978).
The MDS Project collaborators agreed at the 2000 Harare MDS Workshop to use the chronological age of 60
years as a guide for the working definition of "old"; however, this definition was revisited during this
meeting. Many felt this definition was not taking into account the real situation of older persons in
developing countries, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, upon further deliberation and discussion
during the 2001 Dar es Salaam MDS Meeting, the working definition of "older" or "old" for the purposes of
this project was changed to the age of 50 years (Kowal and Peachey, 2001). It is acknowledged that this is
also somewhat arbitrary and introduces additional problems of data comparability across nations, but it is
believed to be a better representation of the realistic working definition in Africa. A brief summary, mainly to
reflect the implications for ageing policy, of the reasons behind the decision to use this definition follows. A
full description is beyond the scope of this report, but will instead be presented in a forthcoming publication.
Categories of definitions
When attention was drawn to older populations in many developing countries, the definition of old age
many times followed the same path as that in more developed countries, that is, the government sets the
definition by stating a retirement age. Considering that a majority of old persons in sub-Saharan Africa live in
rural areas and work outside the formal sector, and thus expect no formal retirement or retirement benefits,
this imported logic seems quite illogical. Further, when this definition is applied to regions where relative life
expectancy is much lower and size of older populations is much smaller, the utility of this definition becomes
even more limited.
Study results published in 1980 provides a basis for a definition of old age in developing countries (Glascock,
1980). This international anthropological study was conducted in the late 1970's and included multiple areas
in Africa. Definitions fell into three main categories: 1) chronology; 2) change in social role (i.e. change in
work patterns, adult status of children and menopause); and 3) change in capabilities (i.e. invalid status,
senility and change in physical characteristics). Results from this cultural analysis of old age suggested that
change in social role is the predominant means of defining old age. When the preferred definition was
chronological, it was most often accompanied by an additional definition.
These results somewhat contradict the findings of a study conducted in Nigeria regarding perceptions about
the onset of old age (Togonu-Bikersteth, 1987 and 1988). Younger and older age groups had similar
responses regarding the chronological onset of old age, with differences in the stated age for men and
women. The results suggested that the generally accepted definition was similar to westernized definitions
of old age; however, this was a unique community with culture-related norms that bestowed certain
privileges and benefits at older ages. If one considers the self-definition of old age, that is old people defining
old age, as people enter older ages it seems their self-definitions of old age become decreasingly
multifaceted and increasingly related to health status (Brubaker, 1975, Johnson, 1976 and Freund, 1997).
While a single definition, such as chronological age or social/cultural/functional markers, is commonly used
by, amongst others, demographers, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and researchers, it seems
3
more appropriate in Africa to use a combination of chronological, functional and social definitions. However,
the challenge of how to incorporate a suitable multidimensional definition into the "pensionable age"
concept remains. It was felt that by using age 50 years, this project will be indirectly incorporating these
other definitions.
For this project, we will use 50 years of age and older as the general definition of an older person. We feel
these data are necessary to fully inform policy makers and programme planners. The accumulated evidence
and resulting information will be able to more accurately determine the health status of the older
population. For more detail, see the references and contacts listed below. A full discussion paper on the
topic will be available.
Acknowledgements
The paper is based on, Defining “Old Age”, a commissioned paper drafted by Andreas Sagner. The US
National Institute on Aging, Division of Behavioral and Social Research supported the MDS Project.
Marybeth Weinberger provided important historical information from the United Nations Population
Division.
References
Brubaker TH, Powers EA. The stereotype of "old". A review and alternative approach. Journal of
Gerontology. 1976;31(4)441-7.
Freund AM; Smith J. Self-definition in old age. (German, abstract). Zeitschrift fur Sozialpsychologie.
1997;28(1-2);44:59.
Glascock AP, Feinman SL. A holocultural analysis of old age. Comparative Social Research. 1980;3:311-32.
Gorman M. Development and the rights of older people. In: Randel J, et al., Eds. The ageing and
development report: poverty, independence and the world's older people. London, Earthscan Publications
Ltd.,1999:3-21.
Johnson M. Is 65+ old? Social Policy. 1976 (Nov/Dec):9-12.
Kowal P, Peachey K. Indicators for the Minimum Data Set Project on Ageing: A Critical Review in sub-Saharan
Africa. World Health Organization and HelpAge International. 2001.
www.who.int/healthinfo/survey/ageing_mds_report_en_daressalaam.pdf
Roebuck J. When does old age begin?: the evolution of the English definition. Journal of Social History.
1979;12(3):416-28.
Thane P. The muddled history of retiring at 60 and 65. New Society. 1978;45(826):234-236.
Thane P. History and the sociology of ageing. Social History of Medicine. 1989;2(1):93-96.
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Togunu-Bickersteth F. Chronological definitions and expectations of old age among young adults in Nigeria.
Journal of Aging Studies. 1987;1(2);113-24.
Togunu-Bickersteth F. Perception of old age among Yoruba aged. Journal of Comparative Family Studies.
1988;19(1):113-23.
UN [United Nations Population Division]. Personal correspondence with Marybeth Weinberger, Chief,
Population and Development Section, January 2001.
... It is a biological reality which has its natural variables, mostly not under human influence. [1] However, old age definition is also subject to the meanings embraced by each society. In the developed world, chronological time plays a pivotal role. ...
... The age range of 60-65 years, approximately the retirement ages in most developed countries, is said to be the beginning of old age. [1] In contrast in the developing world, chronological time has little or no importance in the meaning of old age. Other socially constructed meanings of age are more significant, such as the roles assigned to older people. ...
... Most of the time it is the decline in function accompanying physical decline which is pivotal in defining old age. [1] World health organisation in its working paper on the definition of old age suggests the threshold as 60 years. [1] For statistical and public administrative purposes, old age is frequently defined as 65 years of age or older, however for public health purposes, a 60-year starting point is an important reference age. ...
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... Older adults aged 60 years and above who were present at a time of data collection participated in the study. The United Nations uses 60 years to define old age and recommends the age range of 50 to 65 years to be used as cut off point by countries; additionally, the settings and contexts of countries play roles in determining old age [23]. In Ethiopia, old age starts at 60 the retirement age [24]. ...
... To account for adults of middleage-i.e. those transitioning to older age-as well as for potential socio-cultural differences of conceptualizations of "older age" [47], we set the criterion for our target group at 50 years and above. Studies reporting age effects (or the lack thereof) were eligible, including both studies that treated age as a continuous variable and those that explicitly addressed different age groups. ...
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Chapter
Globalization has brought unprecedented technological advances and rapid social-cultural transformations, resulting in aggregate global prosperity, development transformation, wider inequality, social exclusion, and global risks, among other positive and negative consequences. Elderly population in Africa are not left out of these life-transforming globalization processes that have influenced and are influencing various social institutions and government policies, geared toward enhancing the quality of life of this demographic category. The increasing proportion of elderly people in the world population and the dynamism of globalization processes especially in the continent of Africa therefore call for sustainable livelihood of the African elderly. Using theories of globalization and aging, this paper discusses how globalization processes can be influenced and redirected in such a way that will enhance the livelihoods of elderly population in Africa. It is a general belief that globalization need not become a curse for the African elderly; rather, navigating through the contemporary globalization processes such that it will not leave African elderly behind will help in providing opportunity of an expected future. On this basis, this article presents a critical analysis of how globalization is influencing the lives of African elderly and how this demographic category in turn can navigate through this emerging global trend such that will result in healthy aging. Although it might be impossible to stop the transforming effects of globalization, an understanding of its dynamics will go a long way in guiding policy dialog toward ensuring sustainable livelihood for the elderly in the continent of Africa.
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This article examines (1) chronological definition of old age and (2) expectations about old age held by young adults in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Primary data consist of structured interviews of 113 persons aged 18 to 35. These were supplemented by secondary analysis of data collected from an earlier survey of 432 old persons in Ile-Ife. In respect of chronological definitions of old age, the observed patterns of definition confirm general tendencies reported by previous researchers in Western societies. Concerning expectations about old age, the data points to the centrality of the place of offspring in the definition of a good old age. The article concludes by noting that while chronological definition of old age may show similarity of patterns across cultures and therefore assume the semblance of universal laws, old age expectations are much more culturally specific because of their interdependence with the beliefs, norms, values and other socioeconomic patterns extant in a particular society.
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Within the literature, a negative stereotype of "old" has been emphasized which, it has been argued, is important for self-concept in late life. This paper questions the validity of this argument and presents an alternative model more congruent with extant data. Forty-seven reports of research on stereotypes of old age were analyzed. It was found that 21 studies utilized older persons in the sample, and half of these were based on institutionalized or indigent aged. A positive stereotype of old age was reported in several studies. Thus, the assumption that the aged accept a negative stereotype of old age may not be valid. An alternative theoretical model is presented. From the framework of cognitive dissonance theory, it is argued that the acceptance of a negative or positive stereotype by the aged is related to objective indicators of old age, the subjective definition of self, and self-concept.
Is 65+ old? Social Policy
  • M Johnson
Johnson M. Is 65+ old? Social Policy. 1976 (Nov/Dec):9-12.