The Nigerian family usually consists of not only the nuclear family, which is made up of parents and their children, but the extended family, which embraces several generations of people who are related by blood, marriage, or adoption. It is the very foundation of Nigerian social life and includes siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even more distant relatives.
The unwritten rule
The extended family system (EFS) has evolved into a homegrown version of a more formal welfare system. Our elderly have traditionally been revered and adored and after all their sacrifice they do deserve rest and comfort in old age. The care of the elderly in our midst is culturally rooted and is one of our core values. It has indeed become a shining example of social security within our communities.
Through this basic economic unit, family members, typically adult children are usually charged with the responsibility for the provision of informal care and support for the elderly; such care and support are generally voluntary and reciprocal and seen as a duty that has been assumed and embraced that comes without any form of formal compensation.
The unwritten rule is that ones children will play an important role in providing economic security and care for aged parents, and in turn can rely upon the financial support of his or her children when they become old.
The changing structure of the Nigerian family
More recently, there has been a gradual but noticeable shift away from the traditional family towards the nuclear family, at the expense of the wider family network, and particularly the elderly, for whom this social phenomenon has served as a form of insurance. It was the traditional economic safety net for old age.
The traditional role of families in caring for the elderly is gradually diminishing due to economic realities, which have hindered the willingness and indeed the ability for family members to give. That sense of duty is being overcome by the daily challenges that family members face in taking care of their most basic needs. Rural-urban migration, modernization and influences from foreign cultures are also leading to the gradual disintegration of our communal sense of living. According to a study by sociologists, the past ten years have seen a 70 per cent increase in Indian households with nuclear families; this community like Africans, has traditionally maintained a communal existence.
With more than half of the worldâ€™s population moving towards towns and cities, there is a trend towards urbanization and Nigeria is no different. Advances in careers often require mobility, which usually means migrating from family in search of employment. The elderly thus remain in their hometowns without adequate care and attention.
Old people’s homes in Nigeria?
Whilst the concept of old people’s homes seems almost alien in our culture, such practical steps must be encouraged where there is no alternative and families are unable to provide even the most basic care for their elderly. It is reported that in 2009, a bill “for an Act to establish Senior Citizens’ Centres in the country to cater for the plights of the senior citizens in the country passed second reading in the House of Representatives.
Currently it is reported that there are only 13 old people homes serving Nigeria’s elderly population of an estimated 80 million. In Lagos, a city of over 15 million people, there are only about half a dozen old peopleâ€™s homes that provide only a handful of places to destitute elderly or those without a family, savings or, that are too frail to work.
Ageing as a Policy Issue
With the lack of a formal comprehensive and effective social security system, and with fledgling pensions and healthcare insurance markets schemes in many developing countries, the diminishing role of families in old age care leaves a huge void. There is thus an urgent need to refocus on issues of ageing in Nigeria and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Ageing has become a global phenomenon and indeed a critical policy issue with serious implications. With shifts from the traditional issues of high mortality and high fertility, to reduced fertility and greater longevity, developing countries face and aging crisis. It is expected that before long an Act will be promulgated by the National Assembly making it mandatory for government at all levels to cater for the plights of the ageing class.
The private sector should also begin to direct its philanthropy to include provision for the elderly. Non-governmental organizations and religious organizations such as The Senior Citizens Care Foundation, The African Gerontological Society, The Catholic Church, among others have made laudable efforts in the provision of assistance to older people through day-care centers, residential homes, and regular medical check-ups.
Plan for your old age
In today’s world is it unrealistic to assume that your adult children will take care of you when you are old? What makes the best sense is to start to plan early to make provision for that phase of life after active retirement, so that you are prepared for it whether or not they are able to provide required support. Without adequate planning for retirement, with family resources stretched to the limit, and confronted with increasingly expensive health care, many Nigerians could face a grim old age.
Financial security is a factor in successful aging and will help the elderly maintain dignity, independence and autonomy beyond the active retirement years. The main contribution made by balanced portfolio consisting of shares, bonds, cash and real estate, is in giving access to a decent standard of living and of being able to afford long term health care where it is not readily available within the family.
Nowadays, there appears to be a dwindling regard for our elderly. A nation where the elderly are neglected and even abandoned is unpardonable. It is thus important for all of us, to take individual responsibility to take care for and protect the elders in our midst.
Until an organized and effective welfare and social security system is in place, it is expected that the extended family system will continue to play a crucial role in the social welfare of its members. At the same time, it is clear that as cultural values, socioeconomic conditions, and technology continue to evolve, so too will the face and structure of the extended family in our contemporary society. In whatever form it takes, it is our responsibility to protect it.
*Photo by Yinka Akinkugbe