A group of women in long colored skirts, T-shirts, sneakers and a ball take over the soccer fields of South Africa.
They are between 54 and 87 years old and have decided to break with the myths about old age in their country.
They are the Grandmothers of Soccer or “Vhakhegura Vhakhegura” as they are called in Xitsonga, one of the eleven official languages of the country.
“Through soccer we help grandmothers receive physical and emotional help.
Many have been abandoned by their families who have migrated to the city and they have taken care of their grandchildren”, says Beka Ntsanwisi, the creator of this initiative, by phone.
Like the members of this particular team, thousands of women and men organize to give a twist to the stereotypes about old age, at a time when life expectancy has extended from 66 years (at the beginning of the 2000) at age 71 in low- and middle-income countries;
and from 80 to 84 years in the most prosperous countries, according to World Bank figures.
According to the UN, those born in the poorest countries live 7.4 years less than the world average, however, those who manage to comb gray hair face stigmas related to age, the lack of health care systems and social protection for them, violence and the migration of their descendants.
The Grandmothers of Soccer project, which started in 2003 in one of the rural communities of Limpopo, where Ntsanwisi is from, has grown to cover more than 2,000 women across the country.
At present there are 78 teams and a national team of older women.
“The best of our athletes is 87 years old.
Her children had abandoned her because she forgot things, she was always very distracted and they thought they had done witchcraft to her.
They didn't know she had dementia,” explains community manager Ntsanwisi.
Mama Beka, as the players call Ntsanwisi, talks about age discrimination, loneliness, illnesses and the great responsibilities that fall on grandmothers in rural areas of the country.
“It is assumed that high blood pressure or anguish are the result of old age, but many times it is due to the stress of being alone, isolated and not having money to survive on,” she claims.
The World Health Organization already warned in a report published last March of the difficulties faced during aging.
“Ageism is the first problem, we live in societies designed for young people.
What's more, this is the only socially permitted discrimination”, clarifies Enrique Vega, head of the Healthy Life Course Unit of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the WHO.
living with discomfort
For Vega, working to break these gaps in inequality is essential and she clarifies that currently the number of people aged 60 or over exceeds that of children under five.
"This is due, to a large extent, to the fact that life expectancy at birth has increased and with this the survival of the elderly has improved," analyzes the specialist.
For Martha Deevy, researcher and director of the Stanford University Longevity Center, this is good news, but it has its nuances: "Speaking of more years of existence does not necessarily mean more quality of life."
And that is the reality that the least developed countries or countries with the greatest inequalities frequently experience.
“People often reach the age of 60 sick, with some type of disability, and to this is added the fact that the health system is not prepared to meet these new needs,” Deevy asserts.
And she adds that "although the demographics are changing, the culture and traditions are not."
In the region of the Americas, explains the PAHO delegate, only 20% of medical universities have geriatrics programs.
"This leads to the assumption that discomfort and disease are normal to the aging process, and this is not the case," Vega specifies.
An example of this is the conviction that memory loss in the elderly is normal.
This is what 70% of the population believes, according to the Asia Pacific regional director of Alzheimer's Disease International, Kusumadewi Sahardy, which means that specialized assistance is not sought in time to obtain a diagnosis and proceed with early intervention.
Sahardy, who has been leading dementia awareness and early detection campaigns in Indonesia since 2016, clarifies that although this disease is more recurrent with increasing age, the main reasons that trigger the symptoms are related to loneliness, isolation and depression.
“We exist to be in society and reading facial expressions is the most complex mental exercise there is.
Many people with dementia seek to relate to others through the recovery of moments of social interaction, such as going to the bank or on the street, ”she explains.
The transformation is in the elders
Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the world's population is aging rapidly and that in just 30 years 80% of older people will live in low-income countries, some experts consider that public policies and the same society have focused on youth from a Western perspective.
“We have created societies segregated by age, disconnected from each other.
It is believed that a grandfather or grandmother is no longer useful to society because they no longer produce," says Judi Aubel, an anthropologist who has been working since 2005 to empower grandmothers in urban and rural areas of Senegal, in the far west of Senegal. Africa.
For the anthropologist, that same perspective is the one that is responsible for further extending the differences and stereotypes about old age and stresses that social organizations and NGOs that reach countries like Africa invest in projects aimed at children and youth to change practices harmful.
“This work is important, but they forget that in Africa, the upbringing of children often falls into the hands of grandmothers.
They are the bearers of traditions and social change can be achieved with their support”, she notes.
Aubel clarifies that in societies such as African and Latin American family interaction occurs between three or four generations and it is the elders who have a direct influence to eradicate practices such as child marriage or female genital mutilation.
“If we leave out the participation of grandparents in society's decision-making, their rights go unnoticed,” she asserts.
Like Ntsanwisi, Deevy, Aubel and Sahardy, more than a dozen social entrepreneurs and researchers from different parts of the world have met this November in Bilbao to find solutions that help face the challenges of aging.
"We have decided to talk about new longevity, because the objective is to seek longer lives with standards of well-being in health, inclusion, participation and empowerment", argues Ana Sáenz de Miera, director of social management of the NGO Ashoka, which together with the foundation BBK have organized this meeting, called the BBK New Longevity Summit.
Based on their common experiences, they conclude that if life expectancy extends between 20 and 25 years, it is necessary to destroy stigmas about aging and rebuild inclusive societies that respond to the needs of all generations.
“Empathy, coexistence between young people, adults and the elderly nurtures each other's experiences and skills.
We must be aware that, from the minute we are born, we begin to age.
The challenge is to reach 100 years with quality of life”, concludes Sáenz.
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