Proposed working definition of an older person in Africa for the MDS Project
Note:: This paper was developed in 2002 to define the scope of the Project on Minimum Data Set for Ageing in Africa. For further information on ageing and WHO’s current strategy on Ageing and Health, please visit the WHO web pages on ageing and life-course.
Most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of 'elderly' or older person, but like many westernized concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa. While this definition is somewhat arbitrary, it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin to receive pension benefits. At the moment, there is no United Nations standard numerical criterion, but the UN agreed cutoff is 60+ years to refer to the older population.
Although there are commonly used definitions of old age, there is no general agreement on the age at which a person becomes old. The common use of a calendar age to mark the threshold of old age assumes equivalence with biological age, yet at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not necessarily synonymous.
As far back as 1875, in Britain, the Friendly Societies Act, enacted the definition of old age as, "any age after 50", yet pension schemes mostly used age 60 or 65 years for eligibility. (Roebuck, 1979). The UN has not adopted a standard criterion, but generally use 60+ years to refer to the older population (personal correspondence, 2001).
Realistically, if a definition in Africa is to be developed, it should be either 50 or 55 years of age, but even this is somewhat arbitrary and introduces additional problems of data comparability across nations. The more traditional African definitions of an elder or 'elderly' person correlate with the chronological ages of 50 to 65 years, depending on the setting, the region and the country. Adding to the difficulty of establishing a definition, actual birth dates are quite often unknown because many individuals in Africa do not have an official record of their birth date. In addition, chronological or "official" definitions of ageing can differ widely from traditional or community definitions of when a person is older. We will follow the lead of the developed worlds, for better or worse, and use the pensionable age limit often used by governments to set a standard for the definition.
Lacking an accepted and acceptable definition, in many instances the age at which a person became eligible for statutory and occupational retirement pensions has become the default definition. The ages of 60 and 65 years are often used, despite its arbitrary nature, for which the origins and surrounding debates can be followed from the end of the 1800's through the mid-1900's. (Thane, 1978 & 1989; Roebuck 1979) Adding to the difficulty of establishing a definition, actual birth dates are quite often unknown because many individuals in Africa do not have an official record of their birth date.
"The ageing process is of course a biological reality which has its own dynamic, largely beyond human control. However, it is also subject to the constructions by which each society makes sense of old age. In the developed world, chronological time plays a paramount role. The age of 60 or 65, roughly equivalent to retirement ages in most developed countries, is said to be the beginning of old age. In many parts of the developing world, chronological time has little or no importance in the meaning of old age. Other socially constructed meanings of age are more significant such as the roles assigned to older people; in some cases it is the loss of roles accompanying physical decline which is significant in defining old age. Thus, in contrast to the chronological milestones which mark life stages in the developed world, old age in many developing countries is seen to begin at the point when active contribution is no longer possible." (Gorman, 2000)
Age classification varied between countries and over time, reflecting in many instances the social class differences or functional ability related to the workforce, but more often than not was a reflection of the current political and economic situation. Many times the definition is linked to the retirement age, which in some instances, was lower for women than men. This transition in livelihood became the basis for the definition of old age which occurred between the ages of 45 and 55 years for women and between the ages of 55 and 75 years for men. (Thane, 1978).
The MDS Project collaborators agreed at the 2000 Harare MDS Workshop to use the chronological age of 60 years as a guide for the working definition of "old"; however, this definition was revisited during this meeting. Many felt this definition was not taking into account the real situation of older persons in developing countries, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, upon further deliberation and discussion during the 2001 Dar es Salaam MDS Meeting, the working definition of "older" or "old" for the purposes of this project was changed to the age of 50 years. It is acknowledged that this is also somewhat arbitrary and introduces additional problems of data comparability across nations, but it is believed to be a better representation of the realistic working definition in Africa. A brief summary, mainly to reflect the implications for ageing policy, of the reasons behind the decision to use this definition follows. A full description is beyond the scope of this report, but will instead be presented in a forthcoming publication.
Categories of definitions
When attention was drawn to older populations in many developing countries, the definition of old age many times followed the same path as that in more developed countries, that is, the government sets the definition by stating a retirement age. Considering that a majority of old persons in sub-Saharan Africa live in rural areas and work outside the formal sector, and thus expect no formal retirement or retirement benefits, this imported logic seems quite illogical. Further, when this definition is applied to regions where relative life expectancy is much lower and size of older populations is much smaller, the utility of this definition becomes even more limited.
Study results published in 1980 provides a basis for a definition of old age in developing countries (Glascock, 1980). This international anthropological study was conducted in the late 1970's and included multiple areas in Africa. Definitions fell into three main categories: 1) chronology; 2) change in social role (i.e. change in work patterns, adult status of children and menopause); and 3) change in capabilities (i.e. invalid status, senility and change in physical characteristics). Results from this cultural analysis of old age suggested that change in social role is the predominant means of defining old age. When the preferred definition was chronological, it was most often accompanied by an additional definition.
These results somewhat contradict the findings of a more recent study conducted in Nigeria regarding perceptions about the onset of old age. (Togonu-Bikersteth, 1987 and 1988) Younger and older age groups had similar responses regarding the chronological onset of old age, with differences in the stated age for men and women. The results suggested that the generally accepted definition was similar to westernized definitions of old age; however, this was a unique community with culture-related norms that bestowed certain privileges and benefits at older ages. If one considers the self-definition of old age, that is old people defining old age, as people enter older ages it seems their self-definitions of old age become decreasingly multifaceted and increasingly related to health status (Brubaker, 1975, Johnson, 1976 and Freund, 1997).
While a single definition, such as chronological age or social/cultural/functional markers, is commonly used by, amongst others, demographers, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and researchers, it seems more appropriate in Africa to use a combination of chronological, functional and social definitions. However, the challenge of how to incorporate a suitable multidimensional definition into the "pensionable age" concept remains. It was felt that by using age 50 years, this project will be indirectly incorporating these other definitions.
For this project, we will use 50 years of age and older as the general definition of an older person. We feel these data are necessary to fully inform policy makers and programme planners. The accumulated evidence and resulting information will be able to more accurately determine the health status of the older population. For more detail, see the references and contacts listed below. A full discussion paper on the topic will be available.
- Roebuck J. When does old age begin?: the evolution of the English definition. Journal of Social History. 1979;12(3):416-28.
- Gorman M. Development and the rights of older people. In: Randel J, et al., Eds. The ageing and development report: poverty, independence and the world's older people. London, Earthscan Publications Ltd.,1999:3-21.
- Thane P. The muddled history of retiring at 60 and 65. New Society. 1978;45(826):234-236.
- Thane P. History and the sociology of ageing. Social History of Medicine. 1989;2(1):93-96.
- Personal correspondence, January 2001. Marybeth Weinberger, UN
- Glascock AP, Feinman SL. A holocultural analysis of old age. Comparative Social Research. 1980;3:311-32.
- Togunu-Bickersteth F. Chronological definitions and expectations of old age among young adults in Nigeria. Journal of Aging Studies. 1987;1(2);113-24.
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- Brubaker TH, Powers EA. The stereotype of "old". A review and alternative approach. Journal of Gerontology. 1976;31(4)441-7.
- Johnson M. Is 65+ old? Social Policy. 1976 (Nov/Dec):9-12.
- Freund AM; Smith J. Self-definition in old age. (German, abstract). Zeitschrift fur Sozialpsychologie. 1997;28(1-2);44:59.