While in Africa, I spent time with children who had lost parents to AIDS, many of whom were living with aging grannies. The grannies were, by and large, poor widows with little education who were hard-pressed to care for these youngsters, often taking jobs as field laborers or selling vegetables in the market to cobble together enough money to support their young charges. I was focused on these kids and their trauma of loss but did not dwell on the well-being of grannies themselves - how were they faring under the strain of this burden? And who was there to care for them? These women seemed so resilient and resourceful that these questions didn’t seem so pressing to me.
Now Stanford researchers have published a very compelling study that casts light on what is a serious, previously unrecognized social issue in sub-Saharan Africa: the orphaned elderly. As many as a million elders, mostly women, now are orphans themselves, alone with no support because their children have died of AIDS, the researchers calculated. The numbers are staggering and yet the researchers say they believe their figures far under-estimate the problem.
Grant Miller, PhD, senior author of the study, said when he first began looking at the issue, he was stunned to learn that no one had ever taken a systematic look at this massive population of potentially needy individuals. "This is another component of the social consequences of HIV," he told me. "So people in agencies who make resource allocation decisions need to consider this cost of HIV, and it’s a pretty important one."
The study confirmed what I had observed - that most of these women were poor, uneducated and living in rural areas. About a third - or as many as 323,000 - were also caring for young children. Stephen Lewis, former UN Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, has been a champion for these grannies; by his estimates, as many as half of the 15 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa are living in households headed by these extraordinarily resilient older women, who are helping keep families together amid the chaos of the AIDS epidemic.
The research points out the need for greater social support for these women. African countries generally don’t have formal safety-net programs for elderly, such as Medicare or Social Security, as older people traditionally rely on family or community support. But as the middle generation is being lost to AIDS, that traditional safety net has become severely frayed.
Photo of Paullina, a 91-year-old who lost all 12 of her children to AIDS and was caring for 16 grandchildren, by Karen Ande