Old age in Ghana; A blessing or a curse?

BY: Timothy Ngnenbe

My grandfather had a magical chair. In the morning, it has four legs; in the afternoon, it loses two of the legs; then, in the evening, it gets back one of the lost legs. What is this magical chair?” 

A person is born, grows, and dies. As a child, we learn to walk by going on all fours. After one breaks away from that cycle, one begins to walk on two legs; strong, boisterous and full of energy.

However, in the twilight of life, when one gets older and can no longer walk, a walking stick becomes the third leg.

What this riddle teaches us is that life is not a bed of roses. During our youthful ages, we have the opportunity to do all that we like. But when old age raises its ugly face, life becomes a bitter pill to swallow.

Defining Old Age

The World Health Organisation defines old age as “the last stage in life processes of an individual, and it is an age group or generation comprising a segment of the oldest members of a population.”

From the Ghanaian context, and the purpose of this piece, I would like to take the operational definition of old age to encompass the period of life when one mandatorily retires from active public service, normally at age 60.

Features of Old Age

Perhaps, the bible gives a better description of old age or an ageing person in the book of Ecclesiastes 12:1-5:

“So, remember the Creator while you are still young, before those dismal days and years come when you will say, “I don’t enjoy life.” That is when the light of the sun, the moon and the stars will grow dim for you, and the rain clouds will never pass away.

“Then, your arms, that have protected you, will tremble, and your legs, now strong, will grow weak. Your teeth will be too few to chew your food, and your eyes too dim to see clearly. Your ears will be deaf to the noise of the street.

“You will barely be able to hear the mill as it grinds or music as it plays, but even the song of a bird will wake you from sleep.

“You will be afraid of high places, and walking will be dangerous. Your hair will turn white, you will hardly be able to drag yourself along, and all desires will have gone.”

Figures speak

Ghana’s demographic profile, as established by the CIA World Fact Book, 2014, puts persons aged 65 and above at 1,054,618, representing 4.1 per cent of the total population. This is projected to grow by 2.5 million by 2025 and six million by 2050.

The above statistics suggests that the country would have to deal with the burden of increasing rate of growth of the population of older persons.

The big question is, are older persons relevant to the socio-economic development of our country? How can the state protect the older persons, who in one way or another have contributed their quota to the development of the country?

Relevance of Older Persons

There is an adage that what an elderly person sees while sitting down,  younger persons would never see even if they climb the tallest tree.

In Ghana, there are old persons still playing pivotal roles to keep the country running in all fields of human endeavour, including education, politics, health, religion and governance, among others.

Statesmen such as Mr K.B. Asante, ex-President John Agyekum Kufuor; the National Chief Imam, Sheik Osman Nuhu Sharabutu, and the list continues ad-infinitum, bear ample testimony to the relevance of older persons in the country’s development.

In the rural areas, the older men and women take care of children at home when the youthful persons put their shoulders to the wheel to win bread for the family. The younger generation run to these older persons to seek counsel on a wide range of issues, be it family issues, marriage, sharing of property, peaceful co-existence, tolerance, and what have you.

The Misery of Old Age

Even though old age was supposed to be the period of life for one to look back at their footprints and smile for having lived a fulfilled life, it turns out to be a period of misery, pain, regret and grief for many.

Some older persons go through psychological trauma, as a result of frustration, to the point that they contract certain chronic diseases that lead them to the grave much earlier than their expected time. Perhaps, this could be attributed to improper planning and the irresponsible lifestyle they led during their youthful days.

During their economically active period in life, some people fail to save for a rainy day. Our forefathers were not kidding when they left us with the words, “the firewood we gather during our youthful ages is what we use to warm ourselves at our old age” ; we get back from life what we have put in it. Not so?

But has society contributed to the trauma that older folks go through? Most of the time, in traditional Ghanaian societies, people demonise some older persons by tagging them as witches and wizards.

The older women are the worst victims in this direction. Some of them are sent to witches camps where they are quarantined from the rest of the society.

Westernisation and globalisation have virtually dealt heavy blows to the mechanical solidarity and social cohesion in our traditional societies such that older persons are left to their own fate.

The Way Forward

Older persons, the museums or reservoirs of the cultural heritage of society and fountains of wisdom, are like the hen that lays the golden egg and must be protected.

The government needs to formulate policies that would cater for the specific needs of these people. It is true that the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) makes provision for free medical care for older persons. But how effective and sustainable is this health-care policy?

As for the ordeal some of the older persons go through to access their meagre pension benefits, the least said about it, the better. The Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT), the body mandated to handle pension benefits, must be proactive by making the accessing of pension benefits less bureaucratic.

The Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) programme needs to be scaled up to cover more poor older persons, especially in the rural areas of the country.

It would be a good idea to roll out a policy that would make older persons have free or subsidised access to transportation facilities in the country. 

All said and done, old age is an inevitable stage of life. All, except those who take an early shower, must endure it. It would be fulfilling if proper measures are put in place. Let us all come together to make old age a better stage of life.