Working for a better life
Already a few months into my 12 month assignment with HelpAge International and my first opportunity to reflect was on the bus winding through the mountains west of Chiang Mai.
My destination was the agricultural district of Samoeng. Here, people over 60 make up over 20% of the population, as younger people often leave to seek a better life by studying or working in cities.
Those older people left behind can expect to live longer thanks to advances in medicine, technology and even hygiene practices, however they do face challenges.
Around the world, older people are more likely to be poor and more likely to suffer health issues. They are also more likely to be women. In patriarchal societies, this is a further disadvantage to receiving necessary support and assistance. Throw in a natural disaster or two, and the result is many older face significant challenges at a time when they should be enjoying the fruits of several decades of labour.
Unfortunately more people will face these challenges in coming years, as the world's population structure changes. By 2045, there will be more people over 60 than children under 14.
Rapid ageing in Asia
The transition towards an older population is not limited to developed countries. Asia is changing quickly and "catching up" with the West, and population structure is just another example of this. Europe has had decades to adjust to an ageing population, whereas in many Asian countries this transition is occurring in just a couple of generations.
This means the policy and support structures to help older people are not yet in place; and just like in Western countries, Asia's older people are increasingly living alone.
Arriving in Samoeng, I discovered older people's groups have been providing social and other support to older people since 2000. Initially established by HelpAge International's partner organisation in Thailand, the Foundation for Older Person's Development (FOPDEV), these groups now have 540 members.
Older people provide for their families
At the heart of these groups is a focus on income generation as a practical method of assisting older people to provide for themselves and their family. Working together means greater access to capital, and subsequently greater income.
Aside from money, capital could take the form of chickens or pigs, where the eggs or offspring are returned to the group to be "reinvested". Other methods of income generation include making handicrafts and food items, and weaving bamboo baskets.
Sustainability is an important feature of these groups so profits are split between the worker and the community; 60% of the income goes to the worker, 20% to disadvantaged older people, with the remaining 20% going into a community fund and allocated according to the wishes of members.
In Samoeng, I was able to meet with the leader of the older people's group, Mrs Sommai Lodkhem. Khun Sommai has been a member since she was 53, but leader for the past three years. She most enjoys helping older people have work and earn money to improve their lives.
Building skills and confidence
Khun Sommai's shop also functions as a platform for the group's activities, from selling what is known amongst the villagers as the "older people's eggs", to space for ladies to weave cotton together. My humble attempts to learn from these ladies demonstrated how skilful they are.
Applying their skills to create saleable goods brings in income, but also contributes to a sense of confidence and provides a setting for regular social interaction.
After making a final stop at the market to stock up on handicrafts and food items made by members of the older people's group, it was time to wind my way back through the mountains. I could relax knowing that, in this village at least, a sustainable platform is in place to improve the lives of older people.
Find out more about HelpAge's work to support older people in Thailand.