Defining Old Age and the Challenges Faced by the Aged in Africa and Zambia

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The study aims to discuss the controversy surrounding the definition of an aged person. Second, the study will highlight some of the challenges faced by the aged in Africa with a particular focus of Zambia. Thereafter a conclusion will be established.

Who is an aged person?

In both the theory and practice of gerontology, establishing a universally accepted definition of an aged person has been a borne of controversy among scholars and practitioners. Because of this, the definition of an aged person or rather “old age” has come to be viewed as an ideological and contextual concept. What this means then, is that the boundary between middle age and old age cannot be defined exactly because it does not have the same meaning in all societies. People can be considered old because of certain changes in their activities or social roles (Aging in Africa, 2007).

For instance, people may be considered old when they become grandparents, or when they begin to do less or different work after retirement. In the United States and the United Kingdom, the age of 65 is considered the beginning of old age because, until recently, people in the United States and Britain became eligible for retirement at that age with full social security benefits. In Zambia, despite the fact that the retirement age was recently set at 65, the government policy on aging still defines an aged person as one who is 60 years of age.

Ageing in Africa (2005) stated that where ‘‘old age’’ starts from is not precisely defined and this makes comparisons between studies and between countries difficult. In Western societies, the onset of older age is usually considered to coincide with the age of retirement, at 60 or 65 years of age. In most developing countries, however, this socially constructed concept based on retirement age has little significance. What is more significant in these countries are the roles assigned to people in their lifetime.

Old age is thus regarded as that time of life when people, because of physical decline, can no longer carry out their family or work roles. In spite of not having a precise definition of the beginning of “old age”, Chanda (2011), talked of age categorisation as a process of classifying people as belonging to a certain age group and by implication not to other age groups. In contrast, Habjanic (2009) felt that socially and psychologically, the use of age categorisation can be highly problematic because it would cause people to restrict their own horizons based on ageist assumptions (for example, they would see themselves as ‘too young’ or ‘too old’ to pursue particular activities or roles). For this reason, the very act of categorising others into different age groups and the way people define those groups has significant implications for people’s choices and actions.

Apart from viewing ageing as a process of categorising people into different age groups, Sichingabula, (2000) brought out the gerontologists’ definition of old age. She stated that the gerontologists define ageing in terms of four distinct processes, i.e., chronological ageing, biological ageing, psychological ageing, and sociological ageing. Chronological ageing is defined based on a person’s years lived from birth. Biological ageing refers to the physical changes that reduced the efficiency of organ systems. Psychological ageing includes the changes that occur in sensory and perceptual processes, cognitive abilities, adaptive capacity, and personality. Sociological ageing refers to an individual’s changing roles and relationships with family, friends, and other informal supports, productive roles and within organisations.

The United Nations on the other hand defined older people as those aged 60 years and above. However, the definition of old age by African communities also differed from that of the developed countries. In several African set ups, the United Nations’ definition was inappropriate or irrelevant. In rural situations, where birth registration is poor or even unknown, physical features are mostly used to determine the person’s age. The colour of a person’s hair, failing eyesight and diseases such as arthritis are some of the determining features used to define an older person (Ageing in Africa (2007).

Kamwengo (2001) gave another definition of old age. He defines an aged person as one who is 60 years and above. He added that some people tied a negative connotation to old age while to others it meant being full of wisdom and more knowledgeable, more skilled and more experienced. More complex definitions take in a host of social and cultural issues which include, for instance, the person’s seniority status within his or her community and the number of grandchildren which he or she had.

Challenges faced by the aged in Africa and Zambia

Meanwhile, old age in itself does not come without any hardships. The aged in Africa and Zambian in particular, face a number of challenges. Although data on the actual poverty levels among older people in the region is hard to find, Ageing in Africa (2007), purports that older persons are most affected by poverty. They are the poorest of the poor and receive little support from family members who themselves are struggling to survive the harsh prevailing economic situation on the continent. Most of them hardly generate enough income with which to meet their basic needs. Some have no sources of income at all and the result is physical weakness, isolation, exclusion and low self esteem (Ageing in Africa, 2005).

Mapoma (2013) observed that the work and contribution of the aged to the families and communities is unrecognized and unrewarded in most cases. This statement is true in the case of Zambia, considering the fact that majority of the aged in both rural and urban areas cannot easily find employment in the formal sector due to the fact that they are considered too old to work. In the same vein, the private sector cannot employ them due to the fact that this sector is more interested in the young people whom they consider to be vibrant and energetic to handle the pressure which the sector is accustomed to.

Further, Kamwengo (2001) observed that the aged are faced with challenges such as childlessness and cultural taboos associated with ageing such as, associating old age with witchcraft. Some of them are not able to trace their families or remember their villages mainly because of urbanisation or illness. Still others remain without families to look after them. In regards to retirees, their situation is made worse by delayed pension benefits. A study conducted by Mapoma (2011) reviewed that some retirees in Lusaka and Chongwe had been waiting to receive their pension benefits for as long as ten years since their retirement. Unfortunately others have not lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of their service to the country.

Changala, Mbozi and Kasonde-Ng’andu (2015) have also reviewed that lack of accommodation remains a profound challenge faced by the aged in Zambia’s old people’s homes today. Ndonyo (2011) stated that the conditions in old people’s homes in Zambia were deplorable, underfinanced and in most instances overcrowded. Not only is lack of accommodation a challenge faced by the aged in old people’s homes but those that are in the community as well. In fact many of the aged in old people’s homes are there due to lack of shelter. Therefore the facilities become a place of refuge, protection and comfort.

Another major challenge faced by the aged in old people’s homes in Zambia is boredom arising from lack of creative activities such as crafts, art, exercises, games as well as education to keep them intellectually stimulated and engaged (Changala, Mbozi and Kasonde-Ng’andu, 2015). This phenomenon is also predominant in many communities. It is quite common to find recreational facilities such as play parks mostly established to meet the needs of the youths but never the aged.  The inability to provide creative activities and education to the aged in old people’s homes could be attributed to the fact that some people, including caregivers, think that the aged would not be interested in participating in such activities because they may lack the energy, interest and motivation to do so.

Lack of health facilities still remains a remarkable challenge faced by the aged in Zambia today. Ndonyo (2011) indicated that residents in old people’s homes in Zambia had no provision for medical support staff such as physicians, nurses, nutritionists or dieticians and medical social workers attached to them. Most health centres especially in rural areas are located quite some distance away from the communities, making it difficult for the aged to access them, especially those with physical and mobility challenges. In addition, most cases of the elderly insane are usually attributed to acts of witchcraft rather than medical conditions. The ideal situation, therefore, would be where the aged have easy and quick access to medical services within or near their communities because some of them may have health conditions due to advanced age (Changala, Mbozi and Kasonde-Ng’andu, 2015).


The definition of an aged person has been a centre of contention in both the theory and practice of gerontology. Therefore “old age” is an ideological and contextual concept because different societies define ageing differently. The United Nations, as with the Zambian government uses 60 years as the standard of an aged person. However, in contemporary African societies ageing is usually attributed to social roles and physiological factors factors such as; becoming a Grandparent, or the appearance of Grey hair. The aged are also faced with challenges such as lack of health facilities, lack of educational and recreational activities, poverty, lack of shelter, community ageing stereotypes, and delayed pensions for retirees. This study is of great significance as understanding the definition of old age and the challenges faced by the aged becomes the foundation of formulating policies and interventions that address the real needs of the aged.


Ageing in Africa (2005). Millennium Development Goals Must Target US, Say Oder People.
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Ageing in Africa (2007). Older People and HIV/AIDS: Facts and Figures. Help Age

Chanda, H. C. (2011). A comparative study of survival strategies used by the aged in rural and urban areas: a case of Chongwe and Lusaka districts. Master Research Thesis: University of Zambia, Department of Adult Education and Extension Studies.

Changala, M., Mbozi, E. H., Kasonde-Ng’andu S. (2015). Challenges faced by the aged in old people’s homes in Zambia, International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research and Development, 2 (7) 223-227.

Habjanic, A. (2009). Quality Institutional Elderly Care in Slovenia, PhD Dissertation. Slovenia: University of Oulu, Faculty of Health Sciences, Nursing Science.

Kamwengo, M. M. (2001). Ageing and the Elderly in Zambia: Perspectives and Issues. New Delhi: Sterling International.

Mapoma, C. C. (2013). Population Ageing in Zambia: Magnitude, Challenges and Determinants. PhD Dissertation. Zambia: University of Zambia, Department of Population Studies.

Ndonyo, R. L. (2011). Situational Analysis of Healthy Ageing Programme in Zambia: A Report for the World Health Organisation. Lusaka: UNZA School of Medicine, Department of Community Medicine

Sichingabula, Y. M. (2000). An Environmental Assessment of Divine Providence Home in
Lusaka, Zambia, Southern African Journal of Gerontology, 9 (1) 25-29.



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