Message of WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti
In African culture, the elderly have always been held in high esteem, and accorded special social status. They are a source of wisdom, influencing who we are, and who we aspire to be.
The International Day of Older Persons on 1 October every year is a key opportunity to celebrate the lives of our senior citizens, while highlighting both the opportunities and the challenges that ageing presents.
In August, WHO announced that healthy life expectancy in the African Region has increased by an average 10 years per person between 2000 and 2019. This increase is greater than for any other Region of the world during the same period.
Life expectancy for Africans is now 56 years. This is still lower than the global average of 64 years, but reflects improvements in the provision of health services, gains in reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health, as well as significant achievements in preventing and treating infectious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.
This year’s theme, “Resilience of Older Persons in a Changing World”, reminds us of the significant contributions that older people still have to make in all our lives. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, we saw many retired health workers return to work to help protect their communities. In Africa, millions of families also rely heavily on older relatives, from caring for grandchildren, to contributing much-needed income to households.
The day also provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of leaving no one behind, especially in the context of the declaration of 2021-2030 as the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing. Taking cognisance of the voices, perspectives and needs of our elders is critical to the creation of meaningful, holistic policies that advance us towards the achievement of Universal Health Coverage across the continent.
The Decade of Healthy Ageing initiative is a global collaboration, aligned with the last decade of the Sustainable Development Goals. It brings together governments, civil society, international agencies such as WHO, professionals, academic, the media and the private sector, to improve the lives of older people, their families, and the communities in which they live.
Of the more than 1 billion people aged 60 years and older in the world, most live in low- and middle-income countries. The unfortunate reality is that many do not have access to even the basic resources necessary for a life of meaning and dignity, with the pandemic further highlighting the seriousness of gaps in policies, systems and services.
With older people at higher risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19, the pandemic has also highlighted the urgent need to prioritise the safety of our ageing population, who are especially vulnerable in times of crisis.
On this International Day of Older Persons today, let us commit to make the fundamental shifts necessary to foster healthy ageing. The four areas for action include the need to pursue age-friendly environments free of physical and social barriers; to combat discriminatory ageism; to ensure access to good-quality essential health services; and to provide rehabilitative resources when these become necessary.
Let us commit to engagement with older people, in all their diversities, to hear and amplify their voices, and ultimately, to realise the progress that is so critically needed.