We came not to lament, we want action

02 Feb 2018

As an organisation centred on human rights, we at HelpAge International want to put voices and participation of older people at the heart of what we do.

This week, there has been a special focus on older people at the United Nations in New York as governments have gathered to review implementation of the 2002 Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing.

Two older people from HelpAge global network members joined us in New York. Shashi, co-founder of GRAVIS in India, and Elisha, Executive Director of the Good Samaritan Social Service Trust in Tanzania, came to speak out about the situation of older people in their communities. They called for greater attention to older people's rights so that everyone can enjoy dignity in older age. Here they share their experiences.

Elisha: "I never thought that I would have such an impact"

Elisha from Tanzania speaks at the Commission for Social Development (c) Verity McGivern/HelpAge International

It was an honour to speak at the UN this week and share my perspective as an older person myself and the experiences of older people in my community in Tanzania. I was surprised by how much people appreciated my perspective.

They have no secure income as they grow old - they work or they die

Income security is a major problem for older people in Tanzania. Only 4% of older people receive a pension. The other 96% have no regular, reliable income. This means many have no choice but to continue working, often in physically difficult work like farming. As they age and become weaker. They can farm less and less land, and the income they receive each month gets smaller.

While the island of Zanzibar has introduced a universal social pension, there is no such scheme in mainland Tanzania.

There is free health care in policy but it's another story in practice

The Government of Tanzania told all public health facilities in the country to provide free healthcare to older people. However, long distances mean older people may not be able to get to a health centre and, too often, the medicine they need will be out of stock. The only option then is to buy it at a private pharmacy, but many older people cannot afford to pay.

Negative attitudes are also a major obstacle to older people's right to health. They are often ill-treated or neglected in health facilities. My own mother-in-law died of dehydration in hospital. The doctor had written the prescription and the medicine was there but the staff were attending to younger patients and would not spare the few seconds it would take to administer the medicine.

It is time for a new UN convention

Today I heard that the term ageism was coined 50 years ago. Very little has changed since then about attitudes to older people. Governments promise to do things for older people but we cannot hold them to their commitments. Nothing is binding. We came not to lament. We want action. If a UN convention on the rights of older people is adopted, we won't have to wait another 50 years for things to change.

When I get home, I am going to arrange a meeting with the Government and tell them I spoke here at the UN. I will ask them again to attend the next Open-ended Working Group on Ageing meeting, when governments will discuss the convention. I will call on them to state their support.

Shashi: "They want dignity"

Shashi from Indian NGO GRAVIS at the Commission for Social Development (c) Verity McGivern/HelpAge International

My NGO GRAVIS supports older people in the Thar Desert, a very rural area of Rajasthan in India. Here there are high levels of poverty, and traditional attitudes and beliefs that discriminate against towards women and people of lower castes. Negative attitudes to older people mean the poorest older women face particular challenges.

How can we make sure rural older women are not left behind?

Older women face specific challenges in rural India. They are not able to go out alone.

They must be accompanied by a male relative. If an older woman goes to the doctor, she will not be able to speak for herself. Even if she is accompanied by a younger female relative, the younger woman will often speak on her behalf.

While the law allows them to own property, in practice this is rarely the case and widows will not receive the inheritance they are entitled to. If they have a small pension or they work, they will not be able to keep the money they receive for themselves.

Older people are now understanding that they have rights

Self-help groups we run in communities are helping older people to feel more empowered and understand that they are not dependent on charity, that they can demand their rights.

In one area, older people collectively threatened to vote against local officials in elections if they did not provide water filters in every village in the area to prevent older people drinking contaminated water.

Older people are not only using their collective power to demand things for themselves, but also for others in the community. In one village, older women are campaigning for solutions to address the widespread harassment girls are facing that prevents them from going to school.

As older people ourselves, we have unique perspectives

I learned a lot this week about the situation for older people in different countries. I was surprised to learn that even in rich countries older people are facing many challenges.

There were many experts talking at events but it was good that we as older people were getting the chance to speak and share our own experiences and those of people in our communities. Only by listening to older people will governments understand the reality of later life in countries like India and Tanzania.