Working with Older People: Understanding their Issues

Submitted by Angela Baiya on January 8, 2003 - 1:00am.

by Angela Baiya & Karen Peachey


The number of older people above 60 years throughout the world is increasing drastically. By 2050, they are expected to reach the 2 billion mark, which will be more than that of children under the age of 14.

In Africa, traditional living arrangements are changing and values that used to ensure that older people were cared for and protected are crumbling. The contributions that older people make to their families, communities and society at large are ignored and, all too often, older people are the victims of abuse even by the very institutions that are supposed to protect them. Development processes, that are supposed to meet the needs of all, and especially the most vulnerable, routinely exclude older people. Arguably, negative attitudes are older people's biggest problem.

  • "The NGOs and credit institutions refuse to lend money even though I am able to work hard to yield good results." - an older person during consultations before the Second World Assembly on Ageing (2002)

  • "I have been sent away by the staff of Kangundo District Hospital twice. The health staff said that l am not sick but just old. Treating me is a waste of drugs" - older woman from Misyani, Kenya, during research into the attitudes of health care workers to older people in Kenya.

With very few exceptions, older people are almost invisible in the policies and practices of development agencies. For example, USAID has no known programmes focusing on ageing or intergenerational issues, within the EU there is nobody dealing with ageing and it is not a priority, most UN agencies do not consider ageing an issue … the list goes on.

Changing negative attitudes and valuing old age

  • "I never believed these poor older people had anything to say. Now I have changed my mind and will always consult them" - Government Officer from Ethiopia after attending a workshop with older people.

Reasons why we need to change attitudes and value old age are:

*We need to recognise that older men and women are important and they contribute to society with their wealth of experience and knowledge.

  • Their rights, needs and contributions must be well understood.
  • We are ageing every day: how society treats its older citizens now will affect how we will be treated in our old age.
  • While some communities acknowledge older people as 'knowledgeable", others view them as spent forces. Many older people continue working for a living when they should have retired.
  • "I cannot go to funerals or weddings, not even to church, because I have to be with him all the time …. I can't even go to the fields to plough" - an older woman from Botswana who cares for her adult son suffering from AIDS
  • "The dying are the lucky ones. We are left with children we don't know how to feed let alone educate" - An older woman from Ahero, Kenya, caring for her orphaned grandchildren
  • Older people, especially older women, are generally the primary carers of their adult children when they succumb to AIDS, and then take up full economic and social responsibility for their orphaned grandchildren. The care giving toll is enormous and one that forces older people into deeper poverty as they seek to meet the health and other needs of their families.

Understanding their needs

  • Older people have consistently asked to be seen, heard and understood. They want equal access to essential support services and to have their potential and contributions recognised, valued and supported.

*Older people need to be consulted and enabled to participate at all stages of programme planning, implementation and evaluation if programmes are to meet their needs effectively. A point highlighted by a survey that compared older people's expressed needs, to the perceptions of emergency workers. Whilst emergency staff assumed food and nutrition, followed by isolation/separation from family would be the key issues, older people's priorities were actually income followed by access to health services.

  • As people advance in age they become weaker and more susceptible to illness. These limitations should be taken into account when planning and implementing aid programmes.
  • Their particular needs should be considered in emergency situations, for example they should receive food that is appropriate for their digestive and dental conditions. Lack of understanding by aid agencies of their special needs leads to their inability to cope in emergencies. 'Older people in disasters and humanitarian crises: guidelines for best practice', produced by HelpAge International, gives more ideas.

Treat them as equal partners in development

  • Older people are the most affected by poverty - for example, research by the government of Uganda (2002) found that 64% of older people were living below the poverty line making them the most poverty affected segment of the population followed by children and then women.
  • Their views and opinions should therefore be considered in poverty eradication processes and in decision-making.
  • It is important to involve older people in project planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Their experiences can inform development processes.
  • Steps should be taken to implement the recommendations in the OAU Policy Framework and Plan of Action on Ageing (2002) and the UN International Plan of Action on Ageing (2002).

Angela Baiya is communication manager and Karen Peachy is Regional Programme Manager for HelpAge International in Kenya. For more information about the work of HelpAge International, please visit For more details about the issues highlighted or for details about publications please contact them at

Have your say...

How have you involved older people in your programs? What did you learn? Do you have any advice or suggestions for others? email or join the discussion online at Aid Workers Forum.

Online resources

HelpAge International produces a range of papers, manuals and reports, which are available to download from their website

  • Older people in disasters and humanitarian crises: Guidelines for best practice
  • Working with older people: promoting participation, changing attitudes
  • Better Nutrition for Older People: Assessment and Action


Helpage International is running a training course about the issues of ageing in Africa, to be held in Nairobi on 17 - 21 March 2003. The course is designed to equip programme managers, social workers, government officers, and health care professionals with the necessary skills to deliver better services to older people. Further details from

AID WORKERS FORUM is our place to ask questions and find answers.

This week's featured topics:

Child Rights Education

Working with Consultants

Local Governance Capacity Building

Newsletter Articles: AWX Article
Tags: Elderly
Submitted by ankhkare on March 29, 2011 - 6:21pm.

Indeed, it is very hard to work with older people. I remember the time when I went to Germany with some kind of program related to older people. The whole visit was full of problems, starting with my entering in the country (luckily I had one of the global visas on me and that saved me) and ending with the elders themselves. In the end, we managed to solve the issues, but it was very hard.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.