Living abroad, certain differences between your home country (or wherever you’ve just moved from) and the country you have moved to are startling. They are eye-popping and jaw-dropping, immediately leaping out at you in the first days and weeks. Other differences are more subtle and take far longer to register.
I slowly noticed that one of the differences between South Africa and everywhere else I’ve ever lived is that you rarely see old people in public spaces. I don’t mean old-ER people, like the glam grannies I see hanging out at play areas or in coffee shops with their grandchildren while mum and dad are still at work. Neither do I mean the sprightly pensioners who eagerly help out with after school activities. I mean the truly elderly, the ancient, the frailest citizens.
South Africa, I really hope you don’t mind me asking this question. It has been simmering away and niggling at me for months, it is very much an observation and absolutely not a criticism. South Africa, where are your wrinkled and your wise?
Are they tucked up in the bosoms of your families, back in the kraal or swaying gently in a rocking chair on the stoep, treasured and cared for?
Alternatively, are they holed up in fabulous retirement villages away from the stresses of the daily grind having an absolute ball?
Do they walk amongst us hardy and well-preserved passing for 65 rather than 92?
Are they banished from major conurbations or subjected to some other sinister Brave-New-Worldesque fate upon reaching a certain age?
I come from a country with an ageing population, where there are plenty of golden oldies. We are used to seeing coach-loads of our oldest citizens out for jolly day trips. They are in our libraries and supermarkets. Our pensioners ride buses, browse at local garden centres, traverse pavements and visit shopping centres aided where necessary with zimmer frames, walking sticks and wheelchairs or family members.
Back home, the old and the elderly are very much part of the fabric of our everyday world. They are our grandparents and great-grandparents, fixtures at family events, guardians of family history and visible members of our society.
Conspicuous by their absence in South Africa, I am genuinely perplexed and would love for someone to enlighten me. Where are all the old people?