HelpAge International: fighting for the rights of older people

This guest post is by Richard Blewitt, the Chief Executive of HelpAge International. The charity was recently awarded the world’s largest humanitarian prize for helping millions of older people enjoy healthier, more dignified and active lives.

Health in Haiti © Frederic Dupoux/ HelpAge International 2011

© Frederic Dupoux/ HelpAge International 2011

Older people’s contributions to society are invaluable, yet they remain some of the poorest and most neglected people in the world. HelpAge International helps older people claim their rights, challenge discrimination and overcome poverty, so that they can lead dignified, secure, active and healthy lives.

We involve older people in programme design, implementation and review and work in partnership with local, national and international partner organisations. We provide services where governments don’t, deliver humanitarian assistance when emergencies and natural disasters happen and persuade policy makers to address ageing issues.

I have been HelpAge’s CEO for six years, and one of my proudest moments has been HelpAge winning the 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. I was honoured to accept the award on behalf of HelpAge’s Board, global network and the older people we work for and with on 16 April at a ceremony in Washington D.C.


The timing of the award couldn’t be better. Population ageing is being talked about more and more, especially with the world population hitting seven billion last year. 2012 is the European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations and the year that the World Health Organization dedicated World Health Day on 7 April to ageing and health. Indeed, WHO hosted a live Twitter chat on ageing and health, which reached 20 million people.

All these events highlight the need to rethink our attitudes towards ageing. Not only is age discrimination morally wrong, but excluding older people from policy and programmes around the world puts all of us at serious financial risk.

We know that when you invest in older people you are investing in entire communities. For example, girls in South Africa living with grandmothers who receive a pension are three centimetres taller than those who don’t. This highlights how older people who receive a pension use it to benefit not only themselves but their families and communities.

Mama Brigita and grandsons

Mama Brigita, aged 64 takes care of eight grandsons in Kenya. © Frederic Dupoux/ HelpAge International 2011

This is despite the fact that older people make huge contributions to their communities; as breadwinners, entrepreneurs, farmers, volunteers, campaigners and carers. Half of the world’s children who have lost parents to HIV and AIDS related illnesses are looked after by a grandparent, yet they are offered no support and the funds being invested into the issue of HIV are dwindling.

Through our work, we hear time and time again that what older people value is their health and strength. This is what they depend on to provide for themselves and their families. However, both can decrease with age, meaning that older people are extremely vulnerable to poverty as many have no access to appropriate or affordable healthcare.

The neglect to ageing issues is happening at every level. There is no UN agency that focuses on older people and only a handful of people in the entire system work specifically on ageing. I myself was completely age-blind before coming to HelpAge, despite two decades of experience in the development and humanitarian sectors.

What can be done to change this? I believe that the countries of tomorrow are those that are thinking about ageing and seeing the opportunities it presents. Older people need secure incomes and we must ensure that microcredit and other income sources are made available to them. We need to make the most of our ageing farmers around the world and figure out how we pass on their wealth of knowledge and encourage younger people into agriculture.

Older women should have their land rights protected. Specialised healthcare professionals need to be trained in gerontology. Older people have specific needs in disasters and emergency situations, and these needs must be acknowledged and met.

Finally, listening to older people and supporting them to influence policymakers has to be central to everything we do. For example, our Age Demands Action campaign is led by older people and helps them channel their energies to make changes to their lives, families and communities.

Rapid population ageing needs to urgently be addressed. Developing countries are ageing four times faster than the UK and US. To deal with the consequences, we need policy solutions that take into account the changing demography of the world.

1 thought on “HelpAge International: fighting for the rights of older people

  1. Pingback: Looking after your health as you get older « Well For Living

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