Give our senior citizens the dignity they deserve

Lauren Gillis

In two recent reports, a bleak picture was painted of the social status of our country’s senior citizens.

As we mark Older Persons Week, we must cast a critical eye over this desperate scene and begin taking steps towards protecting and supporting some of our most vulnerable citizens. Our parents and grandparents have been our enablers over the years and it’s time to give back to the hands that fed us.

According to the Poverty Trends Report it was revealed that 44% of South Africans aged 65+ were living in poverty in 2015. The report also showed that more than half the population is living below the poverty line. 

While programmes are quite rightly in place to combat the scourge of poverty among our younger citizens, the older victims of this crisis are still being left out in the cold.

3.1 million old-age grant recipients

This isn’t to say that institutions have entirely forgotten elderly South Africans. According to the Social Profile of Older Persons report by Stats SA, “Over 3.1 million persons aged 60 years and older were recipients of an old-age grant in 2015 compared to 2.7 million in 2011”.

But social grants for older persons, a mere R1 600 per month, fall far short of their needs and help little in preserving their dignity.

Many beneficiaries are also forced to stretch these meagre grants to support entire families.

Thankfully, organisations and individuals have stepped up to lend much-needed helping hands.

The Relate Trust, a 100% not-for-profit social enterprise, works closely with social development programmes such as those offered by Ikamva Labantu. For thirty years, Ikamva Labantu has been improving lives through a Seniors Programme, run in Cape Town’s townships and rural communities.

An example of this vital support can be seen in Nyanga township. Along a small, unassuming road rests Noluthando 1 community hall. Within this sanctuary, some 20 senior citizens, ranging from 60 to 90+ years of age, can be found sitting and chatting noisily at tables, threading colourful beads onto strings. Five metres of each beaded string is then tightly coiled around a plastic holder and packed into a box for delivery. They are providing a vital service with enriching purpose, by threading beautiful handmade bracelets for the Relate Trust. 

These bracelets are then sold worldwide to make a difference and change lives, with over 60% of the revenue being channelled towards charities and social upliftment initiatives. But critically, part of the proceeds from the sale of Relate bracelets gets paid to the elderly people who make them. 

The extra income that these gogos and tatas earn is critical to their livelihoods, independence and dignity. But it’s not the income alone that enables greater peace of mind. It’s also the security sharing in a common purpose and having the opportunity to be recognised as contributing members of their community. Through these initiatives, friendships are formed, bonds forged and collective security is reinforced. 

Last in the queue

Few of us can imagine the isolation many elderly people endure, coupled with feelings of financial helplessness. Through these powerful initiatives, we give back to the generations that nurtured us by ensuring that no one is left behind or forgotten.   

“Within the Western Cape alone, we assist over 2 000 elder persons through our Senior Clubs and home-based care. We have seen the desperate reliance by entire families on the Older Person’s Grant. With so much need in our communities, seniors are often last in the queue to receive a hot meal or healthcare, simply due to a lack of resources,” says Lulama Sigasana, Ikamva Labantu’s Seniors Programme Head.

Older Persons Week needs to be at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness - a nation so recently freed from the shadow of apartheid. Today’s senior citizens were on the frontlines of the fight against this most debasing and inhumane regime. It is because of these champions that we can enjoy the freedoms of a democratic South Africa.

I urge every enabled and employed South African to simply buy a bracelet from major retailers across the country. 

Because it’s up to us to help restore dignity to this overlooked generation. 

- Lauren Gillis is founder of the Relate Trust.

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