Aging in Uganda. There’s more to this story.

By Harriet Anena and Rachel Mugarura-Mutana

Ref: Daily Monitor Wednesday July 1, 2015

State Minister for Primary Education, John Chrysostom Muyingo, is a man on a mission. For several years now he has campaigned vigorously for a youth-led social support system for older people in Uganda. Key to this campaign is a call for a return to traditional social care structures and a bursary of sorts to finance the needs of older people living under the poverty line.

Daily Monitor, on 1 July 2015, reported on Mr Muyingo’s drive during a visit to his home district, Luweero. In the article he is quoted as saying: “We are a strong generation simply because these elderly people extended basics things, including food when we were young. We should give back to them so that they also live a decent life.”

The State Minister’s mission has been widely reported in the news. As the 2016 general elections draw near, it can be reasonably expected that he will reinvigorate this campaign and receive even more media attention from journalists looking for a positive, feel-good story in the political mire.

Hopefully those journalists will look past their search for a great quote or sound byte to analyse pertinent government policies and statements like Mr Muyingo’s in order to deepen their public affairs reporting.

Aging and the media in Uganda

News about older people (‘the elderly’, as we call them in Uganda) is not common fodder for the media. Typically, stories or programmes on aging revolve around the poverty and plight of older people, and inadequate government support to this demographic. Occasionally there is an uplifting piece about a grandmother – and let’s be honest; it is almost always about a grandmother – who has set up a profitable business, is caring for 12 orphaned grandchildren or has gone back to school.

Reports on Mr Muyingo’s mission are an example of these extremes. Older people: don’t sell your land. It is what makes you rich. It gives you food security and wealth. Don’t allow the youth to sell it to buy boda bodas. Young people: don’t neglect your elders. Pay for their needs. They are suffering. They are poor.

Regardless of journalists’ noble intentions, the news media still portrays older people as an oddity. The subtext, from a reader’s point of view, is: “Look! Can you imagine that he is still going strong even though he is past his prime? Can you believe how great her suffering is? Where are her children?” Older people, as presented in the news, are to be pitied and praised, gawked at and glorified.

In a country with one of the youngest average ages of parliamentarians in Sub-Saharan Africa and a president, who by the very definition of his government, is the ‘elderly’, there is a discordance in the media about how to report on aging and how to give a voice to older people.

Still, it is possible for journalists to look past the demographic stereotypes and the failure or success of government’s pension and social security programmes to reporting that fully involves and engages older people. News about this section of the population can depict a realistic view of aging in Uganda, inform us about planning and financing after retirement, and educate us about geriatrics and palliative care for older people. It can generate real debate about public resource allocation as the number of older people in Uganda grows.

Beware the pitfalls

Aging is an active verb, a process, not a label; to experience life.

– A note from the International Longevity Center (USA) and Aging Services of California. In their media style guide on aging, they have this advice to help journalists avoid stereotypes about older people:

  • Avoid being patronising, demeaning or using stereotyping terms such as feisty, spry, sweet, little, feeble, eccentric, senile, grandmotherly,
  • Don’t ascribe a routine behaviour to an older individual, suggesting it is a deviation from the norm. Older adults are active, sexual, etc., like people of any other age. Don’t gratuitously mention family relationships when there is no relevance to the subject: Zahara Namuli [our name replacement], a doughty grandmother, addressed the district council today.
  • Remember that older adults are not a monolithic group.

New issues, new stories

Be a sage about SAGE

Have we, the media in Uganda, exhaustively reported about Social Assistance Grants for Empowerment (SAGE)? SAGE, introduced in 2010 under the Expanding Social Protection Programme, is in the news primarily because of delivery hiccups, government data on beneficiaries and progress reports on its impact. But there’s more to this story.

Key figures on aging in Uganda from the Global Age Watch Index 2014
Key figures on aging in Uganda from the Global Age Watch Index 2014

Social protection in Uganda did not start with the SAGE Senior Citizens Grant. It is enshrined in the Constitution of Uganda which stipulates that the State shall make reasonable provision for the welfare and maintenance of the aged. It further mandates district councils to provide and manage the welfare of children and the elderly.

Additionally, in 2002, when the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing came into force, Uganda became a signatory and committed to halving poverty among older persons by 2015.

It is important not to report on the progress or problems of SAGE in isolation. When about 8,000 older people in Kole District protest that their SAGE direct income support has been mismanaged, this is more than a story about possible corruption and gavumenti etuyambe. It is also a story about the success of government’s implementation of pro-poor programmes and policies to support vulnerable people. It is about oversight and enforcement as much as it is about impunity. It requires a journalist to use a wide lens to better explain the situation on the ground.

Pay me out of poverty

There is more than enough reading material in the Wonderful World of the Wide Web to satisfy a journalist investigating government’s programme of direct income support to older adults. A good place to start is to understand government’s rationale, clearly presented at Follow through with progress reports from the Overseas Development Institute, commissioned to provide oversight and quality control of the evaluation of SAGE.

Is direct income support, as a major means of government’s delivery, the best way to establish a sustainable programme of assistance to poor senior citizens in Uganda? What other alternatives or complementary programmes exist in the region? Are they being applied here? What can we learn from them?

‘Age is but a number’ …

… is what we like to say in Uganda. To understand aging, is to make sense of and investigate the numbers.

Start here: Global AgeWatch Index 2014 and Pension-Watch.Net

Then here: In its 2015/16 ministerial policy statement, the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development reported that “government has made tremendous progress on social protection policy development and piloting Social Assistance Grants for Empowerment.” It stated that empowerment grants are received by 110,334 senior citizens in 15 pilot districts and every month, through MTN Uganda’s Mobile Money Service, over Ushs2.7 billion is delivered. The result, the ministry claims, has increased uptake of health and education services, improved food security, and increased social inclusion, self-esteem and empowerment among older women in particular.

How was this assessment reached? What monitoring and evaluation systems are in place to test the progress of SAGE? What independent checks are available and what do they say about the “tremendous progress” report from the ministry?

This financial year, the ministry has allocated Ushs1 billion to the programme on disability and elderly, and an additional Ushs7 billion for SAGE. Unbundle these figures for your audience and speak to direct resource allocations. For instance, how much money has been budgeted for non-wage expenses and for what purpose? How much, in real terms, is allocated for services for senior citizens?

How old are you now?

In the most recent Uganda Health and Demographic Survey, “an older person was defined as one who was aged 60 years and above. Older persons are generally too weak to perform productive work and economically dependent on others, i.e. children, relatives and neighbours, among others, to survive.”

Is this a fair description? It may well be. However, ven weak people can be happy. Even those with no money can contribute to society. People aged 60+ in Uganda, regardless of economic status, are tilling fields, building houses, teaching classes, writing books, operating on patients, preaching sermons, buying land, participating in local government and even running for a fourth term in office.

Yes, the downside to aging in Uganda is a story to be told, but there’s more to this story. It is important that journalists write as much about the capacity of older persons as they do about their incapacity. Only a full picture of the lives of this demographic will help ‘the next generation’ appreciate that a major policy shift is necessary to deal with those on the margins of society.

One foot in the grave? No!

Older persons in Uganda are not just waiting to die. So why do we treat them as such?

Here are some hints journalists may follow for new stories on elder care:

  • What is the current state of geriatric primary health care in the country? What are the most common health problems among people aged 60+ and what training to doctors and nurses have to deal with these challenges? What is the average annual cost of healthcare for older adults? What cost-sharing or government-funded provisions are available to lessen the burden of healthcare on pensioners?
  • Urbanisation, we are told, has led to increased social isolation of older adults. Is there community led initiatives or faith-based organisations filling in where the traditional support system has gone away? Tell these stories. With the isolation, what emotional or mental challenges are emerging? What socio-psycho support exists to deal with this?
  • There are numerous community-based organisations working in the area of aging, elder care and support. Start here: The Aged Family Uganda for more information and links to related organisations.
Harriet Anena

Harriet Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer

1 Comment

  1. Harriet (this time I spelt your name correctly)..This is certainly a brilliant story, not withstanding the facts therein OH… ITS 2005 BUT STILL RELVANT!!. and like you rightly state, there is more than enough reading material in the Wonderful World of the Wide Web to satisfy a journalist investigating government’s programme of direct income support to older adults on and on 0705 815 815 Joseph Basoga Senior Programme Officer Communications and Advocacy Expanding Social Protection Programme in Uganda Ministry Of Gender, Labour and Social Development.

    A great year ahead for Older Persons as we lobby government to roll out SAGE to the whole country.

    There are numerous community-based organisations working in the area of aging, elder care and support. I could provide contacts for the Uganda Reach the Aged Association and Help age

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