HelpAge at 40: Q&A with founding member Rita Duarte

How did Pro Vida come about? 

I used to volunteer and would buy bread as a reason to meet different older people for a chat. During one of those visits an older person said it would nice if we had a bakery and the idea resonated.  

We then created the statutes and Eduardo did all the things that needed to be done to register Pro Vida. From there, the first self-financing project was born: a bakery.  

How did Help the Aged help you? 

Ken Tout from Help the Aged came across our work and started helping us develop the work that we were doing.  

At the time, Help the Aged wanted to create programmes for older people in Latin America, and with our work producing good results, they created a project called Cigale which brought people from Peru and Ecuador to Colombia to learn from us. This developed into a group of several countries in the region where we all learned from each other.  

How did the idea of joining the HelpAge global network come about? 

We used to go to meetings in London twice a year, along with people from India and other countries. That was when the idea of creating a network was born; the idea to create HelpAge International.  

The London meetings were very big, and we were all sharing updates and experiences from our respective countries. That’s when they said Let’s come together and make a network where we can be together, multiply all these experiences and apply them so they can be a reality in other local communities’. 

Thinking back and remembering everything, I remember how important our work was. When Sir Leslie Kirkley, the founder of HelpAge International, saw us at meetings he would always say “ProVida number one!”


What was the advantage of a global network? 

The goal was to share ideas, and to learn from each other. It was  very interesting because we could look at all the needs and become familiar with the kind of programmes that were being run elsewhere and identify what might be useful for us.  


What were the challenges in creating this network? 

There were challenges to find like-minded people, but what was most important was the way we were able to share resources and knowledge, helping make sure our work for older people was sustainable.  

Members generally managed to find what they needed to run themselves but, as a network, we received a little more to help us be financially independent. The key is to achieve sustainability so that all programmes and projects can prosper and be multiplied. 

How has ProVida supported older people and what has been its impact?  

What was done – or is being done – in ProVida is sharing educational, health and recreation programmes, bringing people together. Many have been able to achieve things they missed when they were younger because of ProVida. Hence, many people say “ProVida is my life”.  

But I still work today in the same way as when we started volunteering: it’s social work. It’s about transmitting affection that people might not get at home or anywhere else. Listening, for example, to the person who needs to tell their story, or their sadness. It was and is very important to know that this person feels listened to, that they know that there is a person who listens to them.    


Do you feel that work for older people has in Latin America improved over time?  

Of course, because when we started older people’s issues were a novelty. Nobody was working for the elderly but now this is a general theme. There are many programmes for older people and global population ageing means there is more awareness. We are all going to get older, and there is a lot to do. 

How have the lives of older people changed compared to 40 years ago? 

They have changed a lot. Many years ago, there weren’t the facilities or opportunities that there are now. Things have changed for the better and there is more opportunity for older people to feel confident about themselves, have a purpose, work and contribute.  

In the ProVida groups there are many people who have learned from the classes we run and now make crafts that they can sell and help each other out in life. 

The meaning of ProVida is ‘for life’, for continuing to live. It means that we do not slow down as we age and can continue to be productive, get ahead, have security and self-esteem. It seems to me that this part has already been achieved.  


When you look back, are you pleased with all that you have achieved with ProVida?  

I never thought we would get this far! But I do feel very happy, because helping older people is at the core of how I have felt since I was little.  

I love older people and I feel so, so happy because this has been passed down to the next generation. My daughter is now in charge of ProVida and my grandson is also helping and working with us. That’s very rewarding, isn’t it?  

The goal was to share ideas, to share, to learn from others. We had the idea, which matured over time, to plant the seed amongst children and young people so that they grow up knowing, valuing, and loving the elderly.  

If my husband Eduardo were still alive he would say: “How does Doña Rita feel knowing that you, as part of the group of five who created HelpAge International, were ahead of your time? Forty years ago you identified this need and this is something that is now being implemented across the sector.”  

Since 1974, Pro Vida Colombia has worked to improve the lives of older people, paying a central role in providing information, advice and support for organisations caring for older people in the country. The organisation’s social welfare programmes aim to develop leadership skills and encourage participation in community life, with other programmes focusing on health, nutrition and the development of social policies for older people.  

Celebrate our 40th anniversary with us!

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