International Day of Older Persons – ‘Neighbourhood Friends’ a lifeline for the elderly

Oct 1, 2021

“Digital Equity for All Ages” is the theme of this year’s International Day of Older Persons on 1 October. While the annual United Nations initiative highlights the need for access and meaningful participation in the digital world for senior citizens, the fundamental well-being of elders remains a pressing issue.

With the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 exacerbating dire living conditions, isolation and neglect have become commonplace in South Africa’s townships.

For many disempowered seniors, ‘Neighbourhood Friends’ have become a much-needed lifeline. Dubbed ‘Umelwanes’ in isiXhosa, these fieldworkers provide hands-on support to 400 frail elders at present. Whilst caring for their clients, they also identify new elders who need to support, mostly through a referral from the local community

The Umelwane Project is an outreach programme of Ikamva Labantu and provides an essential safety net aimed at supporting both frail older persons and their caregivers. 

Older persons often endure an environment bereft of resources, rights and dignity, and as such, remain one of the most vulnerable groups. 

Lulama Sigasana, head of the Seniors Programme at Ikamva Labantu, comments that instead of enjoying their twilight years and reaping the benefits of their longevity, seniors often face a wide range of challenges. This includes abuse by their family and the strain of being breadwinners for their children and their offspring. “They have to use the little pension they have to feed their children and grandchildren. They are also sometimes disrespected at public institutions, and struggle with transport to get to facilities such as clinics,” she says.

“Senior citizens are the backbones of many families, including their communities. Therefore, it is critical that they feel confident that they are not alone in their later years,” she adds. 

Lulama reinforces that older people need to be cherished and loved. “We must always protect them and cherish their wisdom. Today’s youth tend to forget about the critical role that these giants have played in our lives. Many senior citizens were trailblazers who have sacrificed a lot, including their lives and ambition – all to pave the way for the younger generation to enjoy the fruits of today’s freedom and to ensure that their children and grandchildren have a better future.” 

The primary healthcare system is currently not geared to address the health needs of older people living in community settings, and ventures such as The Umelwane Project deliver a crucial service. 

To ease the process, Ikamva Labantu has embraced the digital arena for their seniors, reinforcing the benefits of “Digital Equity for All Ages”. “We have been using WhatsApp to convey everything from parenting course information to education during Covid. There is room for improvement, as some seniors are still hesitant, but if we link it to other initiatives such as SASSA grants or medical care, appointments could be made with seniors so they don’t have to stand in long queues at health facilities,“ Lulama says.

The observance of International Day of Older Persons highlights the plight of the elderly, and calls on the community to rally together and embody ubuntu. 

Ikamva’s Santa for Seniors campaign needs your help. Ikamva Labantu aims to deliver a Christmas “stocking” filled with treats and personal care items to each of the 1400 club members in Ikamva Labantu’s Seniors Programme. Here’s how you can help:


Click HERE here to find out more. YOUR contribution makes all the difference.