Defend Truth


Our forgotten people – the elderly’s right to housing is overlooked

Our forgotten people – the elderly’s right to housing is overlooked
Residents of Uncle Ben's Den, an old age home in Pretoria, on 1 June 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

There is a high demand for housing for the elderly yet the options are limited for those with lower incomes who depend on the government for social security. They do not feature as a special group whose housing needs are prioritised in South Africa’s public housing programme.

While many deride the fact that the delivery of housing has not kept pace with a growing population, the housing needs of older persons, especially those who don’t have private pensions, are usually overlooked. 

South Africa boasts a comprehensive legislative framework for the provision of housing. This includes the Housing Act and the Housing Code. Legislation is also in place addressing the care of the elderly such as the Older Persons Act, the Policy Framework on Ageing and the National Development Plan. But despite the good intentions of these socially progressive policies, we are worlds away from realising access to decent housing for older persons.

The prevailing social welfare model is based on the premise that the community is responsible for providing housing for older persons. This means that families, religious groups and other social structures are expected to shoulder the burden. However, many low-income families are already financially strained and the younger generation often views caring for the elderly as an unfair obligation. 

Religious organisations, while providing essential support to older persons, face limitations due to their reliance on volunteers and donations, which are already stretched thin. 

The government’s support for care facilities for the elderly comes in the form of small grants. Currently, the monthly grant of about R3,500 per person covers only 30% of the total cost of care, including medical interventions. The organisations providing these services must bridge the financial gap to sustain operating costs. 

The majority of South Africans reaching retirement are oblivious to the plight that awaits them if they rely solely on government support in their senior years.

Moreover, facilities face overwhelming demand, with long waiting lists and limited capacity for expansion. These facilities are deemed expensive for most older persons, exacerbating the issue. 

While there are not enough facilities, there are also no plans for significant government-subsidised housing developments or new care facilities for the elderly in the pipeline. This is despite the fact that the Constitution gives everyone the right to progressive access to adequate housing. 

Number of elderly people is growing

Meanwhile, South Africa’s ageing population is growing and our seniors are living longer. Between 2010 and 2020 life expectancy rose from 57.2 to 65.6 years, as reported by the World Health Organization. 

According to the World Bank in 2020, 9.8% of South Africa’s population were above 60 and the United Nations projects that this will rise by about 60% in 20 years, from 4.5 million in 2020 to 7.2 million in 2040.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Caring for the elderly — an age-old burden that rests heavily on the shoulders of women

Moreover, older persons in South Africa are grappling with a surge in chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, putting a strain on care facilities. All indications point to a deepening problem, yet South Africa, unfortunately, does not have a plan to fix it.

Communicare is an independent social enterprise that owns and manages more than 3,000 rental units in well-located areas in Cape Town. It offers rental accommodation to seniors who can live independently. Our rental complexes provide a safe, ideal and affordable environment for them to maintain a healthy life. 

This is unlike other rental opportunities for older persons which are too expensive (market rentals), unsafe (backyard dwellers) or limited-independence (staying with family or in old age homes). The offering is, however, limited given that social housing is regulated and only supports families and older persons younger than 65, and frail care is not provided by Communicare, a common misconception. 

The majority of South Africans reaching retirement are oblivious to the plight that awaits them if they rely solely on government support in their senior years. 

To address the housing needs of older persons, the state could consider incentivising private developers through tax breaks or grants, similar to strategies employed to revitalise declining urban areas.

Innovative housing models and care facilities hold immense potential in meeting the pressing needs of South Africa’s elderly population. Intergenerational housing units, successfully implemented in countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and Japan, offer compelling examples. These units foster a sense of belonging and enable the elderly to reside with their families or within a community, accessing shared facilities and the support they need.

While extended families and community support are often touted as the ideal solution for elderly care, many seniors prefer an independent, quieter lifestyle without the presence of younger generations. Living alone may not always be in their best interest. 

State-subsidised home care

State-subsidised home-based care has proven effective in several countries with advanced social welfare systems. This approach ensures that care is brought to the elderly, sparing them the burden of seeking out services. It includes nursing care, assistance with household tasks, mental health support and meal deliveries. 

Unfortunately, the implementation of home-based care in South Africa has faced challenges due to insufficient oversight, leading to security risks and potential abuse which adversely affects both the elderly and their caregivers. 

To address the housing needs of older persons, the state could consider incentivising private developers through tax breaks or grants, similar to strategies employed to revitalise declining urban areas.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The desperate lament of Soweto’s poor and fearful elderly

While social housing institutions (SHIs) have stepped in to provide a social safety net, it is unrealistic to rely on them as a long-term solution. SHIs must maintain financial viability, as their primary mandate is to offer affordable rental housing to lower-income households. They rely on rental income to sustain their operations and can only secure loans for new housing stock if they have a reliable rental income stream. Providing housing for indigent older persons, which requires ongoing monthly subsidisation, poses financial challenges and diverts attention from the core mission of SHIs, reducing their long-term sustainability. 

If we do not address the growing problem, we risk marginalising our elders. It is time to deepen the conversation and explore how the government and the community can work together to respond to the need. DM  

Anthea Houston is the CEO of Communicare.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options