How do we make sure older people aren’t left behind?

People around the world are living longer. In 2015, 12.3% of the world’s population was aged 60+. By 2050 this will soar to 21.5%. It may be daunting, but it is a triumph of development.

It is changing the way we view our lives, and the possibilities of what we will be able to achieve in life are expanding. However, we live in an increasingly unequal world and as we live longer, inequalities deepen.

According to the State of Civil Society Report 2016, seven out of 10 of the world’s over-60s live in low- and middle-income countries. For millions of people in these countries the consequence of years of poverty, inadequate access to healthcare, poor nutrition, limited education and few employment opportunities accumulate with devastating impact in older age.

Ageism is rife worldwide. Older people are frequently stereotyped as confused and unable to make their own decisions. They are considered a burden on society, families, the healthcare system, the economy and the welfare system. For those already marginalised by poverty, poor health or even their gender, their exclusion is exacerbated in older age by additional discrimination.

Some of this discrimination can be seen in the work place. In the US, for example, one in three workers over the age of 40 has experienced some form of age discrimination while only 29 percent of older workers say they have enough to retire. In Kenya, 27 percent of men and seven percent of older women are engaged in the formal employment sector and in India, 79 percent of older workers are employed in low skill level and physically demanding sectors.

Ageing with a Smile, a HelpAge partner in Gambia, reported how older people feel discarded: "There is a perception that older people are just waiting for their time to die. You hear people say we have expired."

Age discrimination exists within development and humanitarian programmes too. Development focuses around particular population groups such as children, women or people with disabilities reflecting how civil society is organised and how donors allocate their funding. Most donors do not list older people among the groups they support, leaving funding scarce which perpetuates inequality.

The humanitarian sector fares no better. Our research into funding of humanitarian projects found that, despite older people’s vulnerability, between 2010 and 2014 just 74 projects of 16,221 proposals (0.46%) specifically targeted older people’s needs.

To ensure that older people’s rights are recognised, attitudes towards ageing and older people must be addressed.

On the International Day of Older Persons on 1 October 2016, 44,000 people from 45 countries mobilised to explore how ageism affects their daily lives. Activities ranged from a meeting with the Prime Minister in Cameroon and an inter-generational run in Nigeria, to a drawing competition in Kyrgyzstan and a university lecture on ageism in the Philippines.

The wide acceptance of ageism means it can be difficult to recognise it or see what effect it has. Consciousness-raising activities support older people to start a conversation on ageism - what it means and the impact it has - as well as to share personal stories.

Under our campaign Age Demands Action, hundreds of thousands of older activists have made concrete gains, ranging from discounted fares on train and bus routes in Pakistan, to a new senior citizens’ allowance for people over 80 in Sri Lanka and an increased cash transfer with expanded coverage in Kenya.

This year HelpAge also launched an Inclusion Charter which sets out five key steps to ensure humanitarian assistance is provided impartially and according to need. To date, over 40 agencies, governments and civil society organisations have committed to these principles.

Raising awareness of ageist behaviour and attitudes within communities and society needs to be matched with a new UN convention on the rights of older people. We believe a single, internationally-binding instrument is the most effective way to ensure all people enjoy their human rights in old age and on an equal basis with others.

Older peoples’ rights are increasingly on the global agenda, as testified by the inclusion of older people and all ages in the final outcome documents from the recent global summits on the Sustainable Development Goals, the World Humanitarian Summit and Habitat III.

At HelpAge we are delighted by this progress but there is much work to be done.

In order to truly ‘leave no one behind’ as promised in the Sustainable Development Goals, civil society organisations need to reject working solely on our own issues.

We believe that only by working alongside and in dialogue with other issue-based civil society organisations including those representing women, youth, and people with disabilities, among many others, we will be able to achieve our goals of a more inclusive society - not just for older people but for all.