How do we talk about Older People in Development and Activism?

October 12, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Had a nice chat with Cherian Mathews, the incoming head of HelpAge International, this week, which got me thinking about how we talk about the role of older people in development. Our conversation on possible future directions for HAI mainly centred on narratives and tactics.


Obviously no one wants to go with ‘older people as victims’, which manages to combine ageism and poverty porn. But I have questions even over portraying older people as fighting for the rights of older people. Have a look at HAI’s #OlderNotOver campaign. It’s inspiring, but also raised questions for me. How many older people self-identify as such? After all, the experience of ageing is highly intersectional: older people are at the forefront of a bunch of age-spanning activism on issues like climate change or women’s rights (or in my case, talking about activism to anyone who’ll listen). They may prefer to see themselves as activists on one of those issues rather than be pigeon-holed as older people. How to recognize that and build a movement out of such disparate parts?

Older people may well be making unique meta-contributions, e.g. through their emphasis on inter-generational cohesion (‘we want to make the world fit for our grandchildren’) or as particularly powerful volunteers. Think of the phases of life and activism. Very crudely, from 60 onwards there are decades, potentially several of them, during which older people have resources (financial, social, knowledge) and the time to use them. In all previous phases of life, you either have time, or resources, but seldom both. I saw the power of older activists (especially indefatigable nuns) at CAFOD, and it left a marked impression.

You can also see that role in later life playing out in the research by IDS and Oxfam on governance diaries – in countries like Myanmar and Pakistan, older people like retired civil servants become the ‘intermediaries’ who help fix people’s problems at the grassroots, acting as a go between with the state. OK, it’s not entirely voluntary (some kind of informal payment in cash or in kind is usually involved – thanks for the chicken), but it is an important and little recognized role. I would love someone to do an ‘ageing diaries’ research project to uncover where, when and how older people engage in influencing the communities or societies around them in different countries. I suspect it would uncover a whole lot of things that conventional tropes on older people just ignore.


If it starts to sign up individual older people as members, could HAI act as a clearing house for all this experience and time, putting people in touch with each other and saying ‘now get on with some influencing. According to your online forms, you guys are all retired tax accountants and lawyers. You’re the experts, so please come up with a campaign on a wealth tax, and we will brand it, but otherwise we’ll just let you get on with it – after all, you have the networks and credibility.’

That also made me wonder if conventional campaign models (at least in the North) are to some extent rooted in experiences of student/youth campaigning, where the foot soldiers are treated as such by the ‘generals’ back in HQ, with a focus on centralized leadership, planning and control, rather than ‘cut them loose, back them and see what happens’.

Academic partnerships

It’s relatively easy to find partners to work on services for older people etc, but older people as leaders and campaigners? That doesn’t have any obvious fit with existing disciplinary boundaries, as far as I can see, which can be a big stumbling block. Who’s working on this?

Here’s the campaign video – see what you think. Seemed a bit past tense to me – respect this older person because of what they’ve done in their lives. But what about what they’re doing now? After all, (and I’m not saying this is necessarily a good thing) look how many older people are still running countries, Universities and (farewell, then, Rupert Murdoch) major media houses!

October 12, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Admittedly this is not really dealing with older people as activists (though that is a very good approach)… but in rural WASH work in Nepal, we found that talking about toilet accessibility for frail elderly was a great way to improve access for people with disabilities. When we raised the subject of disability in rural communities, people were often not too interested (either they didn’t have a disability themselves or a person with a disability at home, or it was a source of shame). However, if we discussed adaptations to make it easier for frail elderly to use the normal squat toilet (which are also very useful for people with disabilities), it was suddenly very interesting. Virtually everyone has an elderly family member at home, and we will all get old one day.

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  2. The lack of self-identification as being older is in itself a form of internalised ageism. There is so much more we could be achieving for social change across all areas simply for realising the potential and actions that are carried out by older people today. We need to reframe our understanding of ageing and being older so it no longer carries default negative connotations: it is simply a chronological age that carries with it all of the diversity of experience and capacity that we had at earlier stages of our life. Unfortunately, it also brings an added layer of discrimination that severely impacts all of society’s ability to achieve change for the better.

    Also, we should not romanticise being older. Our birthdate does not automatically make us a nicer person, or a more capable one. All that is needed is for all of us to be treated as equal members of society at any age – not put on a pedestal, not denigrated, but given choice and opportunities alongside others.

    Sadly, for the majority of the world’s older people, being older also means living in poverty, being exposed more acutely to risk from humanitarian crises caused by climate change or conflict, and being denied even the most basic acknowledgement and protection of human rights. Being older in a community does not mean one is automatically an “elder” – this is especially the case for older women.

    These are only some of the reasons many of us are fighting for a UN convention on the rights of older persons: to reframe the narrative on ageing, to secure greater clarity on how our rights should be protected in later life, and to encourage greater accountability of governments and other actors. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as shown that this is possible.

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  3. Duncan, this raises some interesting ideas, but I wonder whether much deeper intersectional analysis is needed to understand how the experience of aging varies, particularly across class and gender.

    For example, you say: “Very crudely, from 60 onwards there are decades, potentially several of them, during which older people have resources (financial, social, knowledge) and the time to use them.” But that rather assumes that these 60+ folks have access to decent pensions and high quality healthcare. And actually in many parts of the world these things are patchy at best.

    Here in the UK for example, I believe life expectancy for people in the lowest socioeconomic classes is around 10 years less than those in the highest classes. Your example of the indefatigable energy of nuns is powerful, but is that an outlier – I don’t know the intricacies of ’employment terms’ for nuns, but I think accommodation, food and a social network are provided as standard. For a person approaching retirement age who’s worked all their life in the low-wage informal economy and lived in rented accommodation, these things may seem like a far off dream.

    And then on gender… we know that women pay a huge price in lost incomes, lower pension contributions and reduced promotion opportunities when they have children (at least here in the UK again) – and men don’t, not to the same extent. So again, time energy and money may be much less abundant for elderly women than men.

    Of course these are generalisations, but I think there is some deeper digging to do to understand differences in experiences of aging.

    And as you rightly point out towards the end of the blog post, actually many governments, ministries, militaries, multi-lateral institutions, universities and businesses are dominated by older folks (usually men, and usually men from a certain socioeconomic strata of society)… so power and influence is far from uniformly distributed across a single linear axis like age.

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  4. Let me first declare an interest as a former HelpAge employee. Since leaving them to work in Cambodia I experienced the exact same phenomenon (at least in mainstream society but less so in Indigenous ethnic minority communities). Older People are supposed to be respected by younger generations. They even avow to the principle yet in practice many older people are neglected in old age while many others act as unpaid carers for grandchildren. Although elders in the West are catching up with their children in ICT skills this is less so in developing countries like Cambodia especially in rural areas. This poses the risk of Older People being even more isolated and less able to contribute. HelpAge international helped to pioneer the concept of self-help community groups of older people or general groups where older people are actively included that we have in Cambodia. They prove conclusively that older people remain net assets throughout their life and not the liability often portrayed.

    Interestingly I myself joined the older people category on retirement but wanted to remain active, still voluntarily supporting the NGOs I had worked with in Cambodia. What did I find? UK policies applied by both central government and local government actually prevented and deterred it. I would have been better off financially “waiting to die” at home rather than active out in the world.

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  5. Excellent piece – thanks. As a “senior”, I am so tired of having to fight back against stereotyping (not just ageism – gender and on).

    Please folks stop equating older age with eg higher risk for [fill in the blank]. I am not at higher risk for Covid since I am not trapped in “an old age home” and do not suffer from an underlying condition. Just because I am older does not mean I am poor. It does not mean that I have dementia or that my intelligence, skills, and experience have deteriorated.

    Please let us evaluate eg vulnerability by criteria of vulnerability not eg age, disability, or gender. I could go on!

    And BTW unless (perhaps) you are from the North of England don’t call me ‘dear’. It is insulting, patronizing, infantalizing, oh and ageist.

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  6. Hi, Duncan. Interesting topic. I think I get the message that HelpAge is trying to convey. Currently there`s a growing movement in Brazil of older, work-able, well-educated Brazilians whose career basically stops at 50-something. If they are laid off for whatever reason, they simply can’t get a new job. They accuse private companies of ageism and HR (human resources, not human rights) personnel of intentionally blocking their access to the job market. Now let’s talk about the complications. It’s a movement, indeed, but for us, development folks, they don’t seem like typical activists. At least in Brazil, they seem to articulate some rights-based language, but it sounds more like an individual perspective on one’s right to work (totally acceptable) that tries to benefit from a group-based strategy to advocate for the inclusion (or, perhaps, to prevent the exclusion) of older folks in the job market. There are definitely class, race and gender dimensions in this Brazilian movement that are deserving of a deeper analyses. But despite these issues, what this Brazilian movement and HelpAge seem to be asking is are there age-related issues that affect one’s right to work that we should be looking into even though those affected don’t look like the typical target groups of development organizations ?

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      Thanks Athayde, what’s emerging from the comments is that ‘older people’ is just too broad a category to be useful – barring accidents or tragedy, nearly all of us will be members at some point! So it’s legit, as you say, for older ppl to organize for their right to work, or freedom from discrimination, even if they’re not from marginalized communities; it’s also legit for NGOs and CSOs to advocate for better services; and for both community-based and NGOs to talk about the rights of those discriminated against within the larger category of ‘older people’. Class, race, gender – a truly intersectional issue with no singular responses.

  7. In addition, the UN convention on the Rights of Older Persons was also announced the UN Decade of Healthy Aging (2021-2030) and Communities, Corona proved the importance of community for all ages.
    Human relations are the substrate through which human work spreads. The quality of our relationships determines the level of influence.
    The non-hierarchical relationships can create an environment that welcomes us to bring more of ourselves into the learning process, and you will likely be brought together with people with different perspectives, ideas, experiences and more.
    Money and greed have undermined what a healthy society needs to survive fairness, caring and trust.
    I want solutions. I am older woman, I know about the problems we are facing.
    Pointing them out repeatedly won’t solve them, we need a new story, a new narrative, a new way of doing things.
    “Our lack of community is intensely painful. A TV talk show is not community. A couple of hours in a church pew each Sabbath is not community. A multinational corporation is neither a human nor a community, and in the sweatshops, defiled agribusiness fields, genetic mutation labs, ecological dead zones, the inhumanity is showing. Without genuine spiritual community, life becomes a struggle so lonely and grim that even Hillary Clinton has admitted, “It takes a village”.” David James Duncan

  8. Great blog Duncan. I have shared it on the Oxfam Shop Workplace group, as so much of what you say about activism also chimes with how we think about volunteers (after all volunteering is activism by other means!). We endlessly come up with volunteer startegies aimed at students and young people, but something stops us really looking at the opportunity that people reaching retirement represent.

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  9. Love the video. In Switzerland, often retired people contribute their time and energy to development their communities.

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