Executive summary

The purpose of this report on the history of Age-in-Action, is to provide the reader with an opportunity to experience first hand how the leaders in the organisation responded to the challenges of their times. At the end of the report, the reader will be able to judge whether Age-in-Action has made a difference in the lives of older persons in S.A.

In the Beginning

Age-in-Action was founded on 13 September 1956 in Cape Town, following growing pressure for government and the general public to form a national body for the aged. Initially the purpose of the organisation was to promote the formation of local organisations for the aged and to co-ordinate the services.

The Work Begins

The first office opened on 1 May 1958 in a rat infested closed down building in Change Lane, Cape Town. Mrs. Zerilda Droskie was the secretary. The first fundraising event was a street collection, generating 418 pounds, eight shillings and two pennies. The Council and its members kept themselves involved in addressing the need for frail care, accommodation and health care. Since the establishment of the first voluntary organization for the aged, the Cape Peninsula Welfare Organisation for the Aged in 1953, others started up practically in every major centre.

During the early years, the affiliated members of Age-in-Action in the various provinces rendered services on behalf of Age-in-Action. The focus of the work was to establish old age homes with the help of lucrative loans and subsidies from government. Age-in-Action was very active in lobbying for the first Older Persons Act passed in 1967.

Age-in-Action defines its Mission for Care for the Aged in South Africa

Between 1962 and 1968, Age-in-Action distanced itself from government thinking at the time. It recommended to its members not to develop homes for “normal” old people, but to develop community centres that will serve older persons living at home. Further, that more social workers need to be deployed to help older persons in need of care. In 1970, Age-in-Action published the first handbook on services to the aged which made a meaningful contribution to promote community based care and support. This vision was shared by many organisations that older persons need to remain in the community amongst their family and friends for as long as possible. Age-in-Action also advocated for community geriatric services, through a formidable team of health professionals. Local authorities introduced geriatric nursing services, mostly in Cape Town, Germiston and Durban. Eventually Age-in-Action was instrumental in the founding of chairs for geriatrics at the universities of Witwatersrand and Cape Town.

Signs of Transformation

Since 1964, some members of Age-in-Action raised questions about a representative organisation. At the 1976 Biennial General Meeting, a resolution was adopted condemning the disparity in social grants between whites (R35 per month), coloureds and Indians (R16,50 per month) and black pensioners (R5 per month). Resolutions in 1974 and 1982 at Biennial General Meetings were adopted that Age-in-Action should have open membership. In 1982, the Constitution of Age-in-Action was amended to remove all references to race.

    Taking Care for the Aged to the Community

    During the commemoration of the 1982 International Year for the Aged, Age-in-Action conveyed one central message, i.e. serving older persons in the community is the way to go. A National Plan of Action for South Africa was declared by Age-in-Action. With the opening of the first development office in Johannesburg in 1981, Age-in-Action put its money where its mouth was. Through the efforts of the development workers, a South African model for aged care was developed. This model is known as The People Empowerment Programme (PEP). PEP became the cornerstone of Age-in-Action’s work. It promoted local responses to the true needs of older persons through actions by volunteers. These actions manifested into tangible and sustainable services like providing meals, home care, home visits, income generation projects and companionship. In the process, luncheon clubs were developed and promoted. Demonstration models were soon established that were used to sensitise, train and motivate community leaders to consider these services for their communities. The second leg of PEP was to provide resources to the up and coming clubs. These resources were in the form of equipment, start-up capital and training.

    The final phase of PEP was to establish organisations for care of the aged. Age-in-Action again provided resources, training and supervision in order to help the organisation to become sustainanble. In just over 18 years between 1981 – 1999, Age-in-Action was instrumental in establishing over 400 luncheon clubs and 140 organisations, which were able to run service centres, housing facilities or homes for the aged. A not to shabby track record I would think! There were unsung heroes that need to be remembered. The many sponsors who were willing to invest in the People Empowerment Programme. Amongst them were Shoprite Checkers, Anglo American Chairman’s Fund, Syfrets, Liberty Life, Donald Gordon Foundation, Beares Foundation, Engen, 3M, Nampac, JEB Dark Will Trust, Sappi, BP (S.A.), Standard Bank, The Carl and Emily Fuchs Foundation, Price Forbes, the Independent Development Trust, the National Development Agency and later the National Lotteries Board and many more.

      The Battle for the Heart of Age-in-Action

      For government and its allies, it became clear by 1982 that Age-in-Action was serious about becoming a representative force in care for the aged in South Africa. It was specifically Age-in-Action’s defiance to open its membership to black persons and the appointment of six black development workers that was seen as a declaration of war.

      By 1987, the strategy of government was clear, i.e. “use politically influential members of the Executive Committee to try to lure Black, Coloured and Indian leaders to go for separate councils for the aged”. Black leaders turned down the offers. An attempt to bar black delegates from attending a Biennial General Meeting in Pretoria in 1987 was foiled at the last minute. So was the opening of a separate “white” office in the SALU-building in Pretoria.

      In 1989, the battle lines were drawn. The enlightened leaders, backed by a number of affiliated members, stood firm that Age-in-Action will not bow before political gods. Dr. Cora Erasmus’ leadership in the time of crisis was decisive. At the next Biennial Member’s Meeting and conference in 1991, it was clear that Age-in-Action was reborn, with black and white delegates participating enthusiastically in the programme.

        The Changing Image of Council

        Age-in-Action built its public image through a marketing office. Innovative campaigns like Pretty Things for Little Things, Keep our Aged in the Community, the Golden Heart Competition, Safety and Security Workshops, the Golden Achiever Awards, Village Green Days, cultural festivals and others, made Age-in-Action visible to the public of South Africa. Age-in-Action’s television advert, “The aged are valuable, treat them that way”, won the Plum Award for the best social advert in 1993.

        The Executive Committee of Age-in-Action started to reflect the people of South Africa. Recognised leaders like Dr. Sam Pick, Mr. Cassim Saloojee, Mrs. Val Kadalie, Dr. Sam Motsuenyane, Mr. J. Vilakazi, Mr. S. Rambharos, Rev. J Mbabane, Dr. Henry van der Linde, Rev. D Lambrechts, to name a few, not only gave credibility, but enriched the work of the Council.

        Age-in-Action: The Extended Family to South Africa’s Aged

        In 1991 and 1995, Age-in-Action took the organisation to the people. Regional offices were established together with regional councils. This policy decision created the opportunity for local people to become directly involved in the work of regional offices. The regional programmes focused on addressing local needs by mobilising local leadership. Age-in-Action was no longer an organisation situated somewhere in Cape Town.

        The outcomes of regionalisation can best be seen in the growing number of clubs and organizations being developed. The programmes of the regional offices were designed to build networks through socio-economic development. Good examples of these initiatives are:

        – Poverty alleviation projects through economic empowerment;
        – HIV/Aids awareness and training;
        – Human Rights watch units;
        – Management and fundraising training;
        – Health awareness and education;
        – Caregiver training and the development of caregivers in the community;
        – Establishment of safe houses for abused elderly;
        – Lending depots for care equipment;
        – Cultural and religious festivals;
        – Children’s education projects;
        – Social work interventions;
        – Sports and Recreation;
        – Food gardens; and
        – Literacy training.

        Member organisations and offices interacted with one another through regional workshops, conferences or awareness campaigns. Local organisations were no longer alone in their struggle to survive. Regional offices played a dynamic role in supporting organisations to become self-sufficient by applying for much needed government funding. Training became the core function of Age-in-Action and this is still happening today.

        Celebrating the Second International Year for Older Persons in 1999

        Age-in-Action, in partnership with government and other bodies, played a dynamic role in observing this event. Over 450 000 persons participated in the Millennium Walk, while thousands attended festivals, workshops and functions throughout the year.

        Age-in-Action embraced the international theme “Towards a Society for all Ages” and took the opportunity to re-examine its own programmes. The important role of older persons in the lives of the young and visa versa, started to manifest in the services. Today, many of Age-in-Action’s services create the opportunities to serve older and younger persons together – a re fana maele approach, which means we share and learn from one another.

        Senior Sangala

        No other programme which ran between 1996 and 2001 symbolised the new Age-in-Action so ardently as Senior Sangala. This programme, sponsored by the Department of Sport and Recreation, created opportunities for older persons to live actively. The programme gave purpose to hundreds of clubs by providing equipment, exercise programmes and training to remain active and productive, as long as possible. Many food gardens and income-generating projects were started. Every club had an exercise programme. Hundreds of stories were heard of how lonely, immobile and weak aged were able to start to enjoy life.

        The vision of the late Steve Tshwete, Minister of Sport and Recreation,when he insisted that Senior Sangala be implemented, must be applauded today.

        He saw older persons as torchbearers of the nation. “If their torches would loose its light, it will become dark for the young”, he said. Many corporates supported the Senior Sangala programme after 2001. The National Lotteries Board still assists with the salaries of trainers and co-ordinators for Senior Sangala.

        Some Reflections!

        Age-in-Action has over 50 years become a true and respected champion for South Africa’s older persons. Age-in-Action has become a household name that symbolizes tangible hope, opportunity and support to older persons. Its programmes are trademarked as practical and sustainable.

        There are enormous challenges facing older persons in South Africa today. These challenges can best be served through a bottom-up approach, the Age-in-Action model that has worked for fifty years.

        Training and Capacity Building towards professional and sustainable services seem to be the best possible way forward. The National Qualifications Framework, provides the basis for Age-in-Action to embark on developing and presenting education and training programmes.

        The People Empowerment Programme still has much to deliver to ensure the development of local service infrastructures. This work will demand much of the organisation’s resources. Older persons are carrying the brunt of the HIV/Aids pandemic. In South Africa, almost nineteen percent of all households are run by older persons. This means that new care and support models need to be developed to help the third generation parents to cope with the ever increasing pressures.

        Finally, government, the corporate sector and Age-in-Action, need to develop a three-way partnership framework. This framework needs to make it possible for Age-in-Action to take its services to every corner of this country.

        Dr Slater, in reflecting on the first ten years in 1976, said: “There is no time for complacency – there is still so much to be done”.

        In 2006, the Age-in-Action leadership should confirm those words and continue to convert visions into reality.

        Age-in-Action is such a reality.

          Up to this point, the organisation’s operations were managed via a centralised system where the national office was responsible for covering shortfalls for all provinces.  This became more challenging every year, as all provinces were operating on deficits due to insufficient subsidies for operational costs.  In light of declining income due to the ailing economy globally and nationally, and a major shrinkage in donors, this became increasingly difficult, until the national office was no longer in a position to carry that huge financial responsibility.  

          The national executive committee thus decided in 2016 that provinces take more responsibility for financial sustainability at provincial level, under the management of provincial executive committees.  The organisation continued to share one logo; mission and objectives.  The decentralisation process relieved immense pressure from the national office to carry the full financial burden, as the sustainability of the organisation was now shared by all provinces, extremely tough though it was and still is.  The national office could focus more on national networking, advocacy, lobbying, legislation, marketing, managing the national toll-free Careline, raising the profile of the organisation, updating the national database, and still assisting provinces needing help with their operations. 

          Besides losing income, the organisation also had to deal with other challenges affecting the population, like the global Covid-19, which impacted older persons seriously as they were rated as a vulnerable group due to their comorbidities.  Education in safety protocols became part of the organisation’s core business to flatten the curve amongst older persons, many of whom were sceptical about it, especially about being vaccinated.  However, in an effort to remain relevant and effective, the organisation has no choice but to make use of all avenues and available resources to meet the needs of this often forgotten generation for the way forward.