Forty years of expanding horizons

HelpAge’s journey of amplifying experiences for greater impact

This blog post has been penned by Cherian Mathews, CEO of HelpAge International, on the occasion of our 40-year anniversary.

As we celebrate HelpAge International’s 40th anniversary, I am deeply humbled by our journey of advocating for the dignity and rights of older people globally. What started as a simple vision has grown into a network of dedicated members and partners working tirelessly to amplify the voices often unheard in our communities. 

As we look back on our 40-year history, we realise how much we stand on the shoulders of giants who started the movement to make this a better world for older people. Rita Duarte, 80, founder of ProVida, an agency working for older people in Colombia, is one such example. She shared with us her story about the beginning of ProVida when no agencies were focussing on the wellbeing and dignity of older people in Colombia. According to Rita, she started her work by visiting old age homes and talking to older people. She would say hello to them, give them a hug, share a mug of hot chocolate, and make them feel valued.

It was listening to the older person who needs to tell their story, or their sadness, or anything else that was in their heart. It was important to know that this person is listened to.

Rita Duarte

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HelpAge International has been advocating for the rights and voice of older people for 40 years. Dive into our history, discover our milestones, and explore our innovative solutions to complex problems.

HelpAge at 40

In collaboration with the UK’s Help the Aged, Rita was able to share her ProVida experiences with other organisations working on a similar vision and mission. She began to be invited to join meetings with organisations from different parts of the world to share experiences and exchange ideas on working with older people. Rita said, “In one such meeting, we (five local organisations) agreed to come together to form a network to multiply our experiences and apply them in local realities.” That was the beginning of HelpAge global network. 

From the very start, the network – with organisations like ProVida – was part of the vision of how HelpAge would work. From the original five network members, the HelpAge global network has now grown into more 170 network members present in over 90 countries. Recalling this humble beginning keeps us grounded in our roots, as we celebrate our collective achievements, and look to the future. The global network has made great strides in promoting the rights of older people since its inception.  

Together we have: 

  • Advocated for social protection programmes for older people and gathered evidence to promote social pensions; 
  • Pioneered home care and community-based approaches to the health and care of older people; 
  • Mobilised older people’s associations as a platform to drive the voice and agency of older people; 
  • Worked on the HIV / AIDs and COVID-19 pandemics to create awareness of their impact on older people and challenged policies that isolated or discriminated against them; 
  • Developed inclusive humanitarian response to deliver assistance to older people who were quite often left out or hard to reach; 
  • Continued to advocate for the UN convention on the rights of older people; 
  • Challenged ageism in all spheres to promote the inclusion, wellbeing and dignity of older people; and 
  • Advocated rights based national policies on ageing, promoting age inclusive policies across all sectors.  

More work is to be done on all these fronts. We are yet to stamp out ageism and realise a UN convention on rights of older people. This is still an ongoing fight for the global network.  

As we look to the future the world is changing rapidly. The figures speak for themselves – 1.4 billion people will be aged 60 or over by 2030. By 2050, one-fifth of the world’s population will be over 60, of which 80% will live in low- and middle-income countries. 

Along with these changes we are confronted with increasing conflict and disasters, climate change, urbanisation, and growing inequality. Monumental advances in technology can enable us to adapt to global ageing better, but we need to mitigate the risk of leaving older people behind. 

Millions of older people still live in poverty and face discrimination, with older women impacted disproportionately. In some regions, older women are marginalised and discriminated against when they are widowed, and some are even killed or burnt alive in shocking witch hunt practices.  

Covid-19 and other crises, such as conflict and natural disasters, have shown how pre-existing inequalities can be exacerbated in times of crisis. Securing adequate food and income, access to better health and care and ability to live with dignity are still challenges for many older people.  

But anniversaries are not just about reflecting on what you have achieved or learned. They are also about looking forward: how do we multiply our impact so that older people of the present and future can thrive with dignity and wellbeing? 

Global ageing demands urgent action. We need to be aware of the socio-economic and political implications and work with governments to adapt urgently and systemically. As a global network, we must put this issue before governments and support them in developing policies and practices, building on our experiences of working with older people. We must use the transformative power of collective action to inspire a global movement for change which can inspire everyone at the national, regional, and global level to promote the dignity, wellbeing, and rights of older people.  

We are committed to listening to older people’s voices and mobilising them at the core of our movement. As HelpAge international, we are determined to support and convene the members of the global network. We want to equip them – and other partners – to share ideas, influence policies and harness the network’s capabilities to be a thought leader on promoting the rights of older people. Working with other justice movements, we will multiply the impact and aspire to a world where everyone can age with dignity. There are activists, academics, scientists and statesmen and women who are older and contributing to societies at the highest level. We urge them to join the movement and stand against ageism and promote the rights of the older people so that older generations are not left behind in creating a society for all ages. 

Looking forward, I remain inspired by the resilience and fighting spirit of the communities we work with and the unwavering support of the network, donors, and others. As we embark on the next chapter, I’m committed to continuing this vital work, always remembering our journey and the lessons learnt from various network members, including the mantra of Rita Durate – “listen to the voices of older people”.