Unlike other diseases in Africa (malaria, tuberculosis, intestinal worms, etc.), which mainly affect the young and the old, HIV/AIDS takes its toll on prime-age adults during the most productive years of their lives. The death of an adult family member can have large consequences for the surviving family. Given prevailing social norms in many African societies, the burden may likely be heaviest for women.
Most studies focus on the consequences for orphaned children – their schooling and health. We know less about how older adults are impacted. In our study, we track individuals and their households in northwest Tanzania, an area of high HIV prevalence in the 1990s, over a 13-year period.
We find that, when a family member dies, women (even old women) end up working more on the farm; men do too, but not as much. Having an asset such as goats enables them to work less.
But elderly individuals’ health is generally no worse off after the deaths of their prime-age relatives. Surprisingly, if an adult child living outside the home dies, his/her parents’ health or workload do not suffer . It appears then that support from adult children is either replaced by other family members or the support is much lower than is currently speculated.
These findings suggest that policies like old-age assistance programs should take into account the long-term effects of losing an adult family member, particularly for elderly women, who seem to be compensating for much of the lost income in the household.