Aging, Social Protection and Human Rights: Preventing financial abuse of older people

Date: 20 October 2016
Author: Peter Lloyd-Sherlock

peterlloyd-sherlockOver the past 30 years, the number of older people in low and middle income countries (LMICs) receiving a pension has grown rapidly. New national schemes have been established or extended and numerous pilot programmes set up, often with international support. The value of these pensions is not always substantial (although in countries such as Brazil and South Africa it is several hundred dollars a month), but it is inarguable that they have greatly improved the lives of many older people. This has fed into the emergence of cash transfers as a leading global poverty mitigation strategy. As many have commented, a big part of this story is that pension entitlements, even if means-tested, are now seen as a fundamental right of citizenship, rather than a discretionary benefit.

One key piece of evidence supporting the extension of pension schemes is that older people, especially women, often share a large part of their benefits with relatives. As such, so the argument often goes, if you give an older woman a pension, you may be feeding a whole family. This took on particular meaning when the role of grandmothers caring for AIDS orphans was highlighted in parts of Africa. In return for sharing their pensions, it is sometimes claimed that older people have more say in family decisions. Through being empowered by their pensions, older people are in a stronger position to claim care and support from family members.

All of the above may sometimes apply. Pensions may be willingly shared between older people and grateful, vulnerable family members, who may in turn pay them back in other ways. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence, illustrated by the example of pensioners South Africa, that family relations are not always so altruistic or harmonious.

South Africa is rightly praised for its old age grant scheme, which reaches the majority of its poor older citizens. High unemployment and limited livelihood opportunities mean that these pensions account for the lion’s share of cash income for many families containing older people.  Among older Africans, there is a strong tradition of grandparents caring for young children, dating back to the start of large-scale labour migration in the early 20th century. Additionally, the “moral pressure” to share their pensions with family members does not just come from relatives: Sagner and Mtati observe:

By emphasizing the poverty-alleviating function and the development-oriented role of social assistance money in general and old-age pensions in particular … the state also stresses the ‘rightness’ of pension sharing… The state-supported ideology of the moral virtue of pension sharing and of the ‘natural’ selflessness of old-age pensioners dominates much of the public discourse on older people.

At the same time, South Africa is a country beset by high rates of violence, including against women in domestic settings. One contributory factor has been the scale of drug and alcohol addiction and associated criminal activity. Taken together, strong norms of grandparental duty, the gap in economic status between generations and the pervasiveness of social violence add up to what could be termed a highly “abusogenic”  environment for older people.

There is growing evidence that financial exploitation of older people by relatives, as well as others, is widespread in South Africa. In a study of 506 older people conducted in Mafikeng Local Municipality, around 30 percent of participants reported experiencing financial abuse at some time in their lives.

A number of studies of older people in South Africa over the years— although none of them were specifically concerned with financial abuse— reveal that the issue is a recurring one. For example, a quarter of in-depth interviews conducted in a 2002 comparative study of South Africa and Brazil, participants referred to abusive behaviour by children and grandchildren, as well as robbery in the community without being prompted. According to one informant:

When I developed a walking problem, I asked my daughter to get my pension. I asked her to withdraw 50 rand from my bank and she agreed. When I [next] had to draw my pension money, I couldn’t find my pension card, only to find that she had taken it. She withdrew 700 rand from my account. And now we have a misunderstanding.

Almost all of the interviews were conducted in the presence of other family members, which is likely to have led to substantial underreporting of the issue. In a separate study of older people and high blood pressure conducted in early 2016,1 the issue again arose unprompted. Several participants observed that abusive treatment by children caused stress which in turn led to health problems:

I remember a certain man that I went to visit last week, he had a stroke on his right hand. His son forced him to go and buy a car using his name. He said he was very worried and it led him to have high blood pressure and now he had a stroke.


We are having lots of problems that are caused by our children, especially our grandchildren. Sometimes you find that they have stolen my money and I will be worried. And I will not sleep well and when I wake up the following day I will have headache and body pains.

While these informants were all quite sure that abuse had occurred, it can be difficult to establish, especially where older people are confused or rely on relatives for daily care. A case in point was a frail 80 year-old man interviewed in 2002. He recognized that he was dependent on his son to do his shopping and help him collect the pension, but went on to complain that his children overrelied on him financially and were irresponsible with his money.

The South African case is far from exceptional. There is a small but growing body of evidence of similar problems in other LMICs. All of this points to a need to reframe the rights of older people to recognize that they must go beyond simply the right to receive a pension, and include the right to decide how the pension is spent. This is a decision that must be made without coercion, emotional blackmail or deceit. Establishing this right will become even more important as LMICs see growing populations of older people who are dependent with conditions like dementia. In practice, this will require national campaigns to educate older people and family members about their rights and responsibilities. It will also require more focussed interventions to promote awareness and capacity to respond among a diverse set of stakeholders, including law enforcement, pension agencies, social services and the financial services industry.

As part of this process, we need to question the rather instrumental, optimistically-premised narrative of happy, pension-sharing families. Doing this should not be seen as weakening arguments for extending pensions. Instead, it is about ensuring that pensions actually improve the lives of older people and respecting their rights.


Bigala, P. and N.Ayiga. 2014. “Prevalence and predictors of elder abuse in Mafikeng local municipality in South Africa.” Population Studies, 28(1):463-474.

COSE (Coalition of Services of the Elderly) and HelpAge International. 2016. The Philippine Social Pension at Four Years: Insights and Recommendations. Manila: COSE; London: HelpAge International.

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Hosegood, V. and I.M. Timaeus.2006. “HIV/AIDS and Older People in South Africa.” In Ageing in sub-Saharan Africa: Recommendations for furthering research, edited by Barney Cohen and Jane Menken, 250-275, Washington, D.C.:  The National Academies Press.

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Lloyd-Sherlock, P., A. Barrientos, V. Moller, and Saboia J. 2016. Pensions and Low Sodium Salt: A new strategy for managing hypertension in rural South Africa. Prepared for submission to BMC Geriatrics.

Lloyd-Sherlock, P., A. Barrientos, V. Moller and J. Saboia. 2012. “Pensions, Poverty and Wellbeing in Later Life: Comparative research from South Africa and Brazil.” Journal of Aging Studies, 26(3): 243-252.

IDPM (Institute of Development and Policy Management) and HelpAge International. 2003.  Non-Contributory Pensions and Poverty Prevention: A comparative study of Brazil and South Africa. Final Report, DFID Project R7897, Pensions and Poverty Prevention. Manchester: IDPM; London: HelpAge International.

Sagner, A. and R. Mtati.1999. “Politics of pension sharing in urban South Africa.” Ageing and Society, 19(4): 393-416.

Salinas-Rodríguez, A., P. Torres-Pereda Mdel, B. Manrique-Espinoza, K. Moreno-Tamayo, and M.M. Téllez-Rojo Solís. 2014. Impact of the Non-Contributory Social Pension Program 70 y más on Older Adults’ Mental Well-Being. PLoS One, 9(11): e113085.

Schwarzer, A. and A.C. Querino. 2002. Non-contributory pensions in Brazil: the impact on poverty reduction. ESS Paper 11. Geneva: International Labour Office.

Vizzard, P. 2013. Developing an indicator-based framework for monitoring older people’s human rights: key findings for Peru, Mozambique and Kyrgyzstan. CASEreport78. London:  Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics and Political Science.


Peter Lloyd-Sherlock is a Professor of Social Policy and International Development at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia. His main area of research looks at social protection, health and the well-being of older people in developing countries. He also conducts research on the economic and social effects of non-communicable diseases, such as stroke, heart disease and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Peter has been involved in studies of older people’s well-being and vulnerability in Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Thailand, and is currently working on two funded research projects examining the well-being of older people and their families in eight different countries.

Between 2011 and 2012, he was a Senior Research Fellowship at the UK Government’s Department for International Development, providing advice on social development and social protection. Between 2010 and 2011, he was seconded to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Ageing and Lifecourse Programme as lead planner for a new programme on Primary Healthcare for Older People. He has also worked with the UN Secretary General’s Office to promote national capacity for mainstreaming age into development policy. As part of this, he was primary author for a United Nations report Guide to the National Implementation of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing.

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  1. The study, Pensions and low sodium salt: a new strategy for managing hypertension in rural South Africa, has not yet been published.

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Social Protection and Human Rights