The International Day of Older People: what should we be celebrating?

On 1 October, people around the world will be marking the International Day of Older People. The United Nations created this annual event in 1991 to celebrate the contributions and achievements of people in later life.  So what should we be celebrating? 

Well, I think the most obvious achievement is that people in some of the poorest countries in the world are actually reaching old age. Low life expectancy figures mask the fact that there are millions of older people in many of the poorest countries in the world. People aged 60 and over represent almost 11 per cent of the total world population; and by 2050, the number is predicted to rise to 19 per cent.  The most rapid increase in the 60+ population is occurring in the developing world. This will mean there will be more older people in the world than children for the first time in history.

 This is a huge cause for celebration because it demonstrates that improvements in healthcare, hygiene, water quality, sanitation and education are actually paying off and helping us to live longer. And living longer is an achievement.

 But growing old is not always easy. Older people are among the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the world: they are often amongst the poorest of the poor.  100 million of them live on less than one dollar (60 pence) a day.  Astonishingly, only 5% of people in later life have access to a pension.  Many have to continue working until the day they die.  And many have to work in poorly paid, unsafe and irregular work.

 So what should we celebrate?

We should celebrate when a country introduces a pension. We know that in households containing a grandmother in receipt of a pension, the benefit is felt across the family.  InBrazil, children in such households are up to 3 cm taller, due to the improved diet they receive.

 However, just because a pension exists, it doesn’t mean that an older person can get one. Knowing about it is half the challenge and proving that they are entitled is the other half. Lack of official documents and ID cards is a problem many older people face. AgeUKand HelpAge International campaign for pensions in developing countries, raise awareness about them and help older people to access them.

 We should also celebrate the activism and engagement of older people themselves. Over 2,400 Older People’s Associations (OPAs) have been formed across the world. These OPAs are made up of active, older people who are demanding that their voice be heard.  They are not passive recipients of aid.  They are active agents of change. 

 InTete,Mozambique, Juliano is the President of his local OPA and Podiria is in charge of the Livestock Committee.  Podiria assesses which of the older people in the community are most in need.  That person is given a couple of goats.  When the goats produce a kid, they pass it on to the OPA, so it can be given to another older person.  The OPA also runs a community welfare fund, giving loans or donations to the most vulnerable people, whatever their age.  Older people are helping themselves and others. 

 The one unifying experience most of us will hopefully share is ageing. We’re getting really good at it and we should expect a lot more of it in the years to come.

 So we have a choice: we can put our heads in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening or embrace the challenges and opportunities that await us.

 If there is only one thing we are going to celebrate on 1 October, let us celebrate the fact that many millions of people in developing countries have reached later life.

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