World Congress of Gerontology
Inter-Agency Meeting for the International Year of Older Persons, 1999

Adelaide, Australia, 19-22 August 1997

Jacques du Guerny
Chief, Population Programme Service
and FAO Focal Point on Ageing
Food and Agriculture Organization

The rural elderly and the ageing of rural populations

The objective of the present note is to highlight several issues which need to be taken into account by the United Nations system in the preparations for 1999.

The note focuses on developing countries; first, on the rural elderly (60+ according to the United Nations definition adopted for the 1982 World Assembly on Ageing) and, second, on some issues relating the ageing of rural populations to sustainable development. Mention is also made of the impact of ageing in developing countries for their national food requirements.

A paradox?

According to the United Nations estimates and projections for the population by sex and age on urban and rural areas 1/, the estimated total population for rural areas in developing countries in 1995 was over 215 million and was projected for 2025 at close to 400 million. Such numbers are certainly not insignificant, but is the interest in and concern for elderly rural populations commensurate when one explores - for example - the demographic literature? (Table 1.)

Table 1. Search on Population Index (35,674 citations)

Search on subject Number of Hits
"aging" 1140
"aging, rural" 45
"aging, rural, developing countries" 4

N.B. Many of these references are from the 1980's. Of course, such numbers should not be taken at face value, but it remains probably correct that ageing rural populations in developing countries are an area which have received little attention.

The rural elderly

In Africa, Asia and Latin America the numbers of rural elderly are projected to double or quasi double between 1995 and 2025 2/. In absolute terms, the only sizeable numbers of rural elderly can be expected by year 2025 in Africa (50 million) and especially Asia (337 million). Such increases in absolute terms have implications for health needs and many services.

More significant are the rural elderly dependency ratios which can be expected to increase significantly both in Asia and in Latin America.

Table 2. Rural elderly dependency ratios a

1995 2025
Africa 10.8 12.8
Asia 14.7 25.1
Latin America 13.2 22.1
a/ population 60+years/population 15-59 years

Asia and Latin America will thus face an important elderly dependency ratio which raises the issue of the possible future vulnerability of the rural elderly as a group in these regions in view of the pressures which will be placed on the family and community institutions. Even if the traditional family resources and norms of assistance to and integration of the elderly are not too eroded by 2025, the increase in the "burden" can contribute to such an erosion. Extolling the virtue of traditional rural families and values should not hide the often harsh realities and serve as a pretext for inaction where required. Furthermore, there would be an increasing number of individual cases in which the elderly could be expected to face problems. It should be kept in mind that a large percentage of the future rural elderly might not benefit from any significant pension, health insurance or social security support which, insofar as they are being developed, are limited mostly to urban elderly.

The main issue of concern for the rural elderly is that the projected numbers of urban elderly are expected to increase dramatically (multiplications by a factor of 4 in Africa and Asia). The impressive increase in urban numbers combined with their parallel increase in their relative weight in the total number of elderly results in the fact that, insofar as the elderly receive attention in developing countries, there is a danger that efforts to answer their needs would be directed mostly to the urban elderly. Decision makers need to be alerted to the relative vulnerability of the rural elderly. From such a perspective, the problems of the old-old (80+) and of the increasing sex ratio in favour of women should not be ignored. There are many reasons to be concerned about the effectiveness of present social support mechanisms and institutions in meeting the needs of the elderly in view of future pressure on them. This process can be further aggravated by the combined forces of modernization and growth in numbers of elderly, resulting in a general devaluation of their status in rural areas.

The real value and potential contributions of the elderly need to be promoted. Just to give one example, rural elderly, including women, have considerable knowledge in plants and their various uses (medicinal, nutritional, etc.). In order to protect biodiversity, which is an essential element of sustainable agriculture, such knowledge should not be lost. Rural elderly are also crucial in the inter-generational transmission of culture and of societal identity and cohesion.

Elderly rural women and gender issues

The situation varies between the three regions. In Latin America, the sex ratio is in favour of males in rural areas (even up to 80 years) while it is the opposite in urban areas. In Asia, the sex ratio is in favour of women, particularly in rural areas, and in Africa, it is in favour of women in both urban and rural areas. As it is well known, sex differences in mortality normally increase the female sex ratio with increasing age, unless migration is on a sufficient scale to modify the results, as in Latin America.

However, the issues are not just issues for elderly women, they have a broader gender dimension. The gender ascribed roles for each sex vary through the life cycle and the status of elderly men and women can be different from that ascribed at younger ages. More importantly, from a rural perspective, is the modification of gender roles due to declining activities of husband and/or wife and to widowhood at older ages. This means, how are the roles and obligations of the ageing spouses and eventually deceased husband redistributed in the household or family and where does this leave the widow? More precisely, what happens to issues such as land property or tenure and to other assets? The situations can vary considerably from culture to culture and need to be analyzed.

The ageing of rural populations

The important point to note is that from a development perspective, due to the declines in fertility, either ongoing or projected, in developing countries, the total dependency ratios will decline slightly for rural populations. The increasing rural elderly dependency ratio is more than compensated by the decline in the children dependency ratio (0-14 years). Such changes can open opportunities in policies and programmes to accelerate development, and also to improve the quality of life of the rural populations. For example, the significant projected declines in the upcoming young generations combined with the stabilization of the adult ones in Asia and Latin America should reduce the purely demographic component of the pressures on land (Table 3).

However, it should be kept in mind that old-age dependency is more expensive than child dependency. Furthermore, to reach the rural elderly with necessary services constitutes a particular challenge to policies and programmes

There is a need for policies and programmes to explore the implications of such changes for food security and agricultural production and to build on the potentially positive changes for areas such as rural credit.

Table 3. Projected decrease in rural youth (0-14 years), 1995-2025 (in thousands)

0-14 years
60+ years
1995 2025 1995 2025
Asia 769,292 556,902189,417337,031
Latin America 49,323 32,094 8,738 13,949

In contrast, in Africa, rural youth and adults are projected to continue to increase and therefore one can expect, in this respect, a continuation of the existing problems.

The impact of ageing of population on increasing national food energy requirements

In the study conducted for one of the Technical Documents for the World Food Summit 3/, an attempt is made to estimate the long-term impact of the ageing of populations on food requirements. Food energy requirements vary with sex, age, height, weight and lifestyle. As it is known, the energy requirements increase during the first 25 years of a person's life and decrease slightly after the age of 60. On the basis of FAO work in this area 4/, it was possible (U N medium variant of projections) to examine the impact of population ageing between 1995 and the year 2050 on these requirements (Table 4).

Table 4. Percentage change in food energy requirements in 2050 due to changes in age structures by regions

Africa Asia Latin America
+ 7 + 2 + 2

As shown in table three, the impact of ageing on food requirements for these regions will be small and, in any case, very small relative to the impact of projected increases of population numbers. Regarding the rural population, this should not represent a particular problem.

The impact in Asia and Latin America is lower than that for Africa due to the fact that the demographic transition is completed or well under way in these first two regions, therefore the impact of ageing on food requirements is already felt in 1995.

Some preliminary conclusions:

The issues related to rural elderly and to the ageing of rural populations in developing countries differ from those of urban elderly and populations on a number of aspects. The United Nations system as such and the countries need to take them into account where relevant. Of special concern is that rural elderly could lose out against urban elderly if they find themselves in competition for scarce resources.

On the other hand, the ageing of rural populations should not be viewed purely as a negative trend and can offer opportunities to promote sustainable development. However, little attention has been paid until now to such issues for developing countries. It would also be appropriate to start on such exercises because measures to establish mechanisms such as pensions, social safety nets, etc. require a considerable amount of lead time.


1/ United Nations, Population Division: Urban and Rural Areas by Sex and Age: the 1992 Revision, ESA/WP/120, 1993.

Unfortunately, the revisions in this area have not followed the other revisions (1994 and 1996).


3/Ph. Collomb, J. du Guerny, Food Requirements and Population Growth, Technical Document 4, FAO/WFS, 1996, extract of table 7.