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In Ethiopia, the Elderly Get New Help from an Old Tool

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As Ethiopia has begun to age, its traditional end-of-life insurance groups are adopting a new purpose: helping elderly residents live their daily lives when they no longer have family members nearby.

Established around 100 years ago, the Ethiopian idir is a kind of grassroots life insurance. Idir collectives help Ethiopian neighbors organize funerals for their closest relatives and provide solace in grieving.


But as Ethiopia has begun to age, the idir has started to serve a new purpose beyond end-of-life services: helping elderly residents live their daily lives when they no longer have family members nearby.

“The number of older people left alone has increased, because their children have left for other cities or countries and don't visit or support them anymore,” says Etalemaha Mekbib, the treasurer of a 700-member idir on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa. Her association, whose main purpose was once to fund all the arrangements of the funeral, now also pays calls to the elderly in their homes, accompanies them to hospitals, and helps them pay their monthly idir fees or buy basics such as soap or coffee.

Although Africa is the world’s youngest continent, people here are living longer too. And by most accounts Africa is not doing enough to prepare for it. Although in African culture the elderly enjoy a vaulted social status, with extended families taking care of them without question, traditional support systems have become strained. Rapid urbanization, modernization, and the AIDS epidemic have devastated family structures, leaving elderly with little support. Some are even on the streets.

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For the vast majority of elderly in Ethiopia, says Gebre Yntiso Deko, an anthropologist from Addis Ababa University, “their pension systems are their children.” He says governments should act now to prepare, by funding adequate nursing care and creating pension schemes.

In the absence of that, the idir is serving as a vital social network since they are present even in the smallest villages. “We have to come up with new ways to help elderly people,” he says.

“People in an idir are like a family,” says Ms. Mekbib, dressed in a traditional white Ethiopian scarf in her living room on a recent day. “They are neighbors, they know each other well, so they know when someone needs help.”