Most people hope and believe that retirement will be an enjoyable and relaxing time of life. But retirement isn’t an option for most older people in the world’s poorest countries. With few or inadequate pensions, most people in later life must continue working until the day they die. When you have to keep going and every day is a struggle to survive, you need strength for life.
Our partner, Age International, sees older people as an asset to their families and communities, making a contribution that is often not recognised. It challenges the stereotype that labels older people as a burden. The Charity wants everyone to see that older people in developing countries embody both strength and dignity; providing not only for themselves, but for their families.
For this reason, Age International held a photo competition in Spring 2016 to ask both amateur and professional photographers to send in striking images of older people from around the world. As you may remember, we promoted this competition to our readers and many of you submitted photos from your travels. Each of the shortlisted photos embody the value of ‘strength for life’ – an affable glance, a majestic portrait, a powerful pose – they show older women and men both at rest and at work; people in later life demonstrating both dignity and distinction.
The photos were presented to a prestigious panel of judges including the Head of Photography of The Guardian, Roger Tooth and the award-winning photographer, David Levene. The panel also included our very own News Editor, Roger Bray, and Managing Director, Debbie Marshall. Our aim was to select a winning photo from the Amateur Category and the Professional Category.
We were unanimous in our decision for both categories. Andy Langton won the Amateur Category. We were captivated by the image and enthralled by the story behind it. In South Korea, over 45 per cent of the Haenyeo – or Diving Women of Jeju – are over the age of 70. These older women dive for shell-fish and are often the main breadwinners in the family. Andy says ‘What comes across most from these ladies is their warmth and zest for life, a complete refusal that age should ever be a limit to what you can do.’
We were delighted to award Robin Bath with the winning prize in the Professional Category for his image of ‘Companions’. A proud and dignified older woman looks across Lake Inle whilst being observed by her curious cat. An older gentleman himself, Robin was delighted to win the professional category of the competition, “I am indeed over 70!” he told us, “How that happened is a mystery but I wouldn’t attest to being ‘mature’ just yet!”
These images will be shown at a photo exhibition in central London from Thursday 29 September until Monday 31 October. The exhibition will be in the Crypt Gallery, St Martin-in-the-Fields, just off Trafalgar Square. You do not need tickets, just go along to the gallery and enjoy the exhibition.
The missing generation of Myanmar
Not only will you get to see photos from the competition, you will also see photos taken by The Guardian’s David Levene, who visited Age International’s work in Myanmar.
In Karen State, a rural province in eastern Myanmar (Burma), work is scarce. To find jobs and to provide for their families, many people are travelling to neighbouring Thailand. This mass migration is having an impact on the children that are left behind – and the grandparents who are raising them.
Age International is working with its partner, HelpAge, to support these older people in Myanmar. Together the charities are providing microcredit so that older people can set up small businesses, buying goats, ducks and pigs to support themselves and the children in their care. They are also lobbying for a state pension so that people in later life can have some semblance of retirement.
Age International is improving wells in local communities so that older people and their grandchildren have access to safe water. It is providing health care and home care in communities so that people can live their later life in good health and in good company. And it is distributing walking sticks, glasses and hearing aids so that older people can walk safely, see well and communicate with others.
David visited the Charity’s work in Anan Pin Kone in Karen State, a village of 130 households and 650 people. Two-thirds of the middle generation from this village are in Thailand. The rest of the villagers rely on farming. Karen State has one of the lowest literacy levels in the country and higher than average unemployment rates. One month’s wages from Thailand are equivalent to one year’s salary in Myanmar, so many people feel that their only option is to migrate in search of work to pay for their children’s education and the chance of a better future.
But what of the people left behind? In Anan Pin Kone, grandparents are the primary carers of grandchildren in 11 families. David met each of these families, seeing how they live and taking a series of family portraits. He spent time with grandparents U Ta Lili, 64, and Daw Thain Si, 60, who have been caring for 2½ year old twins since their granddaughters were six months old, when their daughter returned to Thailand to continue working.
Like the photos from Age International’s competition, these images show older people with great spirit, strength and resilience. They challenge the notion that older people are a burden. They show that people in later life can be valued and are valuable.