Our history

Five organisations in Canada, Colombia, Kenya, India and the UK set up HelpAge International in 1983 to provide a strong network to support older people worldwide.

Early days

The idea for a global network of older people’s organisations arose from a consultancy commissioned by Sir Lesley Kirkley, Chair of Help the Aged’s Overseas Committee, in 1980.

“It was the time of the Ethiopia and Somalia wars,” says Chris Beer, who carried out the consultancy and who later became HelpAge International’s Chief Executive Officer.

“It became clear that older refugees were not being looked after by other agencies. The idea was to become a lobby for older people and develop programmes such as eyecare and community care.”

Steady growth

In November 1983, five organisations – Help the Aged (now Age UK), HelpAge IndiaHelpAge KenyaHelp the Aged Canada and Pro-Vida Colombia – came together to form the HelpAge International network.

The idea of a global network quickly took hold. In 1988, Mark Gorman, now HelpAge International’s Strategic Development Adviser, took on the task of developing the network.

He says, “The global network gives us a connection linking grassroot national organisations with global reach. It is authentic and was part of our identity from the very start. People recognised us for the work we were supporting at the grassroots which gave us unique credibility at the global level.”

Global influence

The HelpAge International network has since grown steadily in size and influence. We now have over 170 network members and many more partners in more than 90 countries across the world.

In the 1980s, ageing was not on the development agenda. The 1982 United Nations Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing did not focus on the developing world.

Now there is growing awareness of ageing issues, particularly in countries going through rapid demographic transition in Europe, China and India.

We have formal relations with some of the most influential agencies in the sector, including consultancy status with the UN and World Health Organization.

"Before, we were denied seats and had to sit on the floor. Now people will applaud when we walk in and say ‘the senior citizens have arrived’."

Member of an older citizens group in Tanzania

Key achievements

November 1983: HelpAge International is founded on 19 November 1983 by Sir Leslie Kirkley to start a global network of equal organisations working openly together to support older people around the world.

1991: 1 October is the first annual UN day for older people around the world.

1993: HIV/AIDS work begins in both Africa and Asia to challenge the idea that the epidemic only affects younger people and to support older people who are infected or who are caring for their orphaned grandchildren.

1993: HelpAge Kenya carries out the first participatory research with older people, to make sure that their experience is properly understood. This forms the basis of the Rapid Needs Assessments used today which help us identify priority needs for older people caught up in a humanitarian emergency.

1994: Rwanda genocide – Having been involved in humanitarian responses with Help the Aged’s international arm, HelpAge International takes on all Help the Aged’s international work and responds separately to the genocide in Rwanda, supporting refugees crossing the border into Tanzania.

1994: Regional networking – The first regional conference in Asia is held in Chang Mai, Thailand to share ideas and learning among a handful of network members and guests. The conference, held every two years, has grown in visibility and is often opened by the leaders of the hosting country, attracting in excess of 500 members, partners and academics. The 2024 conference in Bali follows a break since 2018 following Covid-19.

1999: Guidelines on responding to older people in emergencies – HelpAge publishes its first guidelines on how to respond to older people’s needs in emergencies and develop a more inclusive humanitarian response.

2001: Earthquake in India – When a major earthquake strikes in Gujarat, HelpAge works with HelpAge India to deliver its first humanitarian response in Asia. Working with new partners, the experience provides a basis for their response to the tsunami that struck the region almost four years later.

2002:  Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing – We arrange consultations with older people in 32 countries which helped to shape the UN Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. This committed governments to include ageing in all social and economic development policies, a marked improvement to the previous Vienna Plan. HelpAge continues to support five-yearly reviews that monitor progress to support older people around the world.

2002:  Older citizens’ monitoring projects – Working with partner organisations in five countries, we launch the first older citizens’ monitoring projects in which groups of older people learn about their entitlement to social pensions and healthcare and lobby the authorities for better access.

2004: Indian Ocean tsunami – Working with HelpAge India, HelpAge Sri Lanka and new partners in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, HelpAge launches a major response to support older people and others affected by the tsunami.

2006: Our advocacy work hits a milestone with the Livingstone Call for Action. The African Union declaration outlines a commitment for social protection for all, including older people. HelpAge plays a leading role in organising the meeting where the declaration is penned and signed by 13 African governments. This declaration strengthened advocacy towards social protection measures, and helped lead to the adoption of universal pensions in Uganda and Zanzibar, and further afield in Peru and Thailand.

2007: HelpAge launches Age Demands Action, the first global coordinated campaign which brings together older people’s associations in 26 countries to challenge age discrimination and present their issues to governments. The campaign has brought national successes for older people such as a secure income to more than 30,000 Kenyans, health insurance ID cards to access vital healthcare in West Darfur, local centres in Colombia and a budget to tackle cardiovascular diseases in Kyrgyzstan. The campaign continues to grow, with organisations in 77 countries taking part in 2018.

2009: Campaigning for a UN convention on the rights of older people – Three years after starting to submit evidence of rights violations in different countries to the UN human rights system, HelpAge calls for a UN convention on the rights of older people. When the UN General Assembly adopts an open-ended working group on ageing in 2010, advocacy focuses on gathering evidence from network members and working with academics to make the case for the convention and what it should cover. The convention would apply existing human rights to the lives of older people in one single treaty, helping to challenge ageism and age discrimination.

2010: Recommendation to protect older women from discrimination – The UN adopts recommendations from HelpAge on how the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women should be applied to older women. These recommendations, which include recognising the important contribution older women can have in society, comprehensive healthcare, better data to understand diverse needs and challenges, the right to work and access to non-contributory pensions, were made as part of HelpAge’s country-by-country analysis to secure a UN convention for the rights of older people.

2011: GAROP – HelpAge International is a co-founding member of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People (GAROP), which in 2023 has more than 400 organisations representing 80 countries committed to securing a UN convention on the rights of older people.

2012:  Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize – HelpAge receives the prestigious 2012 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. The award is the world’s largest humanitarian prize and is presented each year to an organisation that has delivered extraordinary work to alleviate human suffering.

2012: Ageing in the 21st Century – This flagship report sets out the challenges for older people in an ageing world and provides a for network members and partners to take their work forward. In Pakistan HelpAge uses it to launch its first campaign to raise awareness of older people in the country. The campaign goes on to secure social protection legislation for older people in four of the country’s five provinces.

2013: Global AgeWatch Index – Our first Global AgeWatch Index, provides country-by-country analysis of older people’s lives. This helps support national advocacy goals, such as social protection, and reveals areas that had not been considered before, such as the risk of violence towards older women. Revised indexes were launched in 2014 and 2015, and again in 2018.

2013: Important step so older people are included in the Sustainable Development Goals – Following pressure from HelpAge and others, the UN agreed to a Stakeholder Group on Ageing. This provided a means to shape the SDG discussions so that the issues of older people were included.

The stakeholder group brings together national networks and organisations around the world and amplifies the voices of older people at the global level. The Titchfield group, with a remit to set international standards for collecting and analysing relevant data, was set up in 2018 following calls from HelpAge and Age International to address the data gap to monitor progress in the SDGs for older people.

2013: Older People’s Associations changing and saving lives –  After Typhoon Haiyan devastates the Philippines, HelpAge is able to reach isolated areas that others are unable to access through the  Older People’s Associations (OPAs) operating in the country.

HelpAge has supported the development of OPAs around the world in many forms. Some focus on issues and rights, others more on social interaction and supporting one another, depending on the wishes of their members. Many are intergenerational, sharing expertise with younger people, learning from and supporting one another. There are now more than a million OPAs globally with hundreds of millions of members, providing a platform of older people’s voices to improve their lives and call for change.

2013: Responding to the Syrian crisis: HelpAge collaborates with Handicap International to mount a response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan and produces a new research report on older, disabled and injured Syrian refugees. In 2016, we launch a healthcare programme for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, reaching more than 2,000 older refugees per month.

2014: Presence in Ukraine – In response to the hostilities with Russia and the corresponding impact on older people, HelpAge establishes its programme in Ukraine where one in four people are over 60. Older volunteers mobilised by HelpAge provide care, stability and support for older people in their communities.

2015: Climate and Development – HelpAge joins the Action/15 campaign, a global network calling on leaders to do more for all ages in the year of the new Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Change deal. As we host Action All Ages Day, Archbishop Desmond Tutu lends his support saying “As we get older our rights do not change. As we get older, we are no less human and should not become invisible.”

2020 – 2021:  COVID-19 response – The organisation rolls out a global programme and advocacy response to the COVID-19. The pandemic exposed how widespread and deeply rooted ageism is in our societies. We saw older people stereotyped as unable to make decisions for themselves, and age limits put on who could access healthcare. HelpAge has continued to advocate for vaccine equity and speak out against the appalling levels of healthcare discrimination brought to light by COVID-19.

2021: Ageing on the move – HelpAge along with UNHCR produces a landmark five-country report on older refugees and migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean, casting light on the risks and challenges faced by older people on the move.

2022:  Emergency response in Ukraine HelpAge mounts its largest ever emergency response in Ukraine and its neighbouring countries, reaching over 70,000 people in the first year of the conflict.

2023: Older Not Over We launch our first global three-year campaign #OlderNotOver to champion a fuller, more authentic portrayal of what life really looks like after 60.