Although the elderly constitute only four percent of the country’s population, the count is growing. Censuses show the population has grown from 450 000 in 1998 to 650 000 now.
As the number continues to rise, the most prevalent challenge facing the senior citizens is poor health.
With old age comes reduced physical ability and increased vulnerability to diseases and stresses.
The elderly are increasingly prone to degenerative diseases that subject them to chronic illnesses requiring long-term medication and more specialised healthcare support.
Another critical challenge is social and economic deprivation and social isolation.
The traditional subsistence system used to take care of all the generations in the extended family, providing the elderly security.
In fact, one of the reasons for having many children was to secure that social and economic security in old age. However, these traditional structures have been weakened due to development, modernisation and urbanisation.
As the youth migrate to urban areas in search of greener pastures, they leave the aged alone and helpless in the communities.
More and more Malawians are moving away from the multi-generational extended family setup to set up nuclear, modernised families.
At its peak, HIV and Aids claimed many lives in their most productive years (30-44 years).
A big proportion of the current old people have less or no children to cater for their old age security. Instead, grandparents take care of hordes of orphaned grandchildren.
Sadly, most of them are uneducated and never engaged in formal employment. They have no pension to fall back on.
With weakening bodies, they can no longer work productively and to fend for themselves.
Throughout their productive years, most elderly persons have been involved in subsistence farming with low incomes rendering them incapable of making any savings and investments for old-age security.
Additionally, there is a trend of delayed marriage and childbearing among young people. By the time the elderly require increased support from their children, the grandchildren also need support of their parents.
The reliance on children is compromised because the children tend to focus more on their children.
Even those who were in formal employment could not earn enough to save and invest enough to sustain themselves by the time they reach old age.
Even the pension is inadequate and tends to diminish with time. Consequently, most elderly live in poverty.
Due to low income levels of most Malawian families, it is almost impossible to take care of older people, especially their medical costs as they are more susceptible to illnesses due to lowered immunity.
So, there is need to help them to access good health services.
As Malawi drifts through the demographic transition, more and more people will be surviving to older ages. On average, Malawians who survive up to age 60 are more likely to live for another 24 years.
This leads to intergenerational competition for employment which results in retirement of the older people to create room for youthful and more productive people.
Even elderly citizens on pension schemes are likely to see their income dwindling when they need it most.
The civil service pensioners are cases in point.
No one can prepare enough for old age.
This is why the state should come in with an old-age social security arrangement to ensure the growing population does not plunge into destitution.
The reality is that those who appear youthful today have only 20 years or less to start experiencing the hardships associated with the elderly.
Policymakers of today may have less than 10 years to join the elderly group. It is an inevitable eventuality. Let us start considering these matters. n