OPINION | International Day of Older Persons – Creating awareness and enhancing support for older persons

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On 1 October 2021, we commemorate the Day of Older Persons. While individuals over the age of 60 years are generally considered older persons, people may also be defined as older based on their status in the family. In 2011 it was projected that by 2030 South Africa will have an elderly population of approximately seven million.

Older people are regarded as possessing a wealth of knowledge and life experiences, which make them an invaluable resource for families and communities. As part of families in South Africa, grandparents have historically played, and currently, still play a critical function in society.

As a result of the social stressors placed on families, which have contributed to the collapse of family structures, grandparents are often the safety nets for society and families. Parents may be temporarily absent or unable to raise their children due to socioeconomic factors or job migration.

For example, the current Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in approximately 95 000 children in South Africa becoming orphans due to their parents having succumbed to the virus.

In many cases, grandparents are expected to step into the parenting role, either as co-parents or as sole parents, to raise their grandchildren with the hope of ensuring that their family structure and bloodline will be protected and preserved.

The increase in the number of grandparents who take on the task of raising their grandchildren has encouraged an increase in research, specifically on how this population group can accomplish such an important task and deal with the accompanying challenges posed by fulfilling this duty during their later years.

A recent PhD study on South African grandparents who were raising grandchildren under the age of nine years who had a disability, conducted by Dr Mantri-Langeveldt, found that the majority of grandparents who participated in the study were stressed because of the time and energy required for this task, and the financial difficulties they experienced.

Grandparents were also found to have poor health and well-being and generally lacked effective support networks. Furthermore, the study found that an increase in stress led to a deterioration in their well-being.

Where older people had access to more social support, their stress levels were lower and they experienced higher levels of well-being. It was also found that if grandparents were able to express their exact needs, it was more likely that they would be able to access the right kind of support from their communities and their well-being would improve.

Grandparents raising their grandchildren specifically expressed a need for encouragement and someone to talk to when they worry about their grandchildren. These crucial findings indicated that effective social support networks for older persons can make a valuable contribution to their well-being.

Such networks do not have to be large, but they are useful they provide the kind of help and support needed.

This study and the increased global research on older persons highlight the need to maintain and support the health and well-being of grandparents and older persons in our communities because of the roles they may be called on to fulfil as caregivers in their families.

As more children in South Africa become orphaned by the Covid-19 pandemic, this is an issue that will need careful monitoring to ensure that vulnerable families are sustained.

By commemorating the International Day of Older Persons we hope to raise greater awareness in communities across South Africa of the important role of older persons in our society and the physical exhaustion and stress they may experience while raising their grandchildren.

The mental and physical health status of grandparents influences their ability to offer emotional and physical support to the grandchildren in their care.

It should be understood that older persons who already feel isolated from their communities and social networks may hesitate to seek support, which makes it crucial to reach out, in particular to grandparent caregivers, and provide more effective help and support so that they can live better lives.

There is also a need for more grandparent-specific platforms and organisations that can encourage grandparents to make contact with others who are in a similar situation so that they can form mutually supportive networks.

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