What’s so special about human rights for older people?

The United Nations has, over the years, passed conventions outlawing discrimination against and protecting the rights of a range of population groups – women, children, refugees, prisoners, people with disabilities. But nothing which specifically covers the rights of older people. Does this matter? Doesn’t the Universal Declaration of Human Rights cover the case, enshrined in article 1 “all human being are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Yeah, right, you might say).

Human rights and ageing have been on the international agenda for over thirty years, viz:

  • 1982 – Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing
  • 1991 – United Nations Principles for Older Persons
  • 2002 – Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing.

The last is the only international instrument devoted to older people, but it covers mainly health and support services. It does not provide a comprehensive human rights framework, including protection from discrimination or degrading treatment, equality before the law and so on.

In 2010, the UN General Assembly established an Open-ended Working Group on Ageing and there have been some regional initiatives. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (I wonder what the difference is?), the Council of Europe and the Organisation of American States have been working on draft documents.

Why do we need legally binding standards on the rights of older people?

For one thing, numbers of older people are growing rapidly – 700 millions over the age of 60 now (10% of the world population) and 2 billion by 2050 (20% of the world population). Contrary to what a lot of people think, this trend is affecting all continents. Today 65% of people over 60 live in less developed countries, by 2050, 80% will.

The fastest increase will be in Africa, where the 60 plus population is likely to quadruple between 2010 and 2050. It will quadruple in Western Asia, triple in the Asia-Pacific region and double in Latin America. Europe already has the oldest population of all major world regions and will probably have 34% of its population aged 60 plus by 2050.

Despite these boggling numbers, older people’s human rights are often invisible in national and international legislation and policymaking. The main areas of concern are:

  • Age discrimination
  • Legal capacity and equality before the law
  • Long term care and health services
  • Violence and abuse
  • Access to resources
  • Social security.

The importance of these issues will vary across the world. In New Zealand, NZ Superannuation provides income to support a basic standard of living for older people. We have outlawed age discrimination and there is no compulsory retirement. Older people here have opportunities to remain economically active (although we should not forget how labour force conditions can produce cumulative disadvantage for women). Our health services are good, comparatively speaking. This does not mean that we should be selfishly unconcerned about the plight of older people in other countries, who may lack the basics of clean water and adequate food, or who may be abused and abandoned when they are seen to be no longer productive. Speaking up for fellow seniors across the world is something which our NGOs could make more noise about, I think.

How might an international convention help all older people, New Zealanders included?

It could help to deal a blow to ageism expressed as deep-seated stereotypes, negative attitudes and practices which devalue and demean older people. Despite laws against it, age discrimination – overt or concealed – seems to be alive and well. Despite having lived independently and productively for decades, older people may be treated as incompetent, “like children”, especially when they are suffering from some degree of disability.

Could a UN document help older people to ensure that their preferences and best interests are always taken into consideration in relation to their lifestyle, residence, assets and relationships?

Ageist attitudes may underlie less than adequate treatment of older people in long-term care. But we cannot discount the effect of cost-cutting, profit maximising approaches which may put pressure on poorly- trained and poorly-paid staff, leading to the possibility of poor care and abuse. The NZ Human Rights Commission included these possibilities in their 2012 review “Caring Counts: Report of the inquiry into the aged care workforce”.

Like age discrimination, elder abuse and neglect, in all its forms, is often a hidden phenomenon, hard to define and quantify and hard to deal with. But we know that it has a serious and profound effect on the wellbeing of older people; it affects their physical and mental health and can be life-threatening. Financial abuse and exploitation of older people is a complex and growing problem, encouraged by difficult financial times for many families and the concentration of assets in the hands of older people. Do not discount “inheritance impatience.” Could we use an international instrument as leverage to call for innovative ways to prevent else abuse and stronger measures to deal with it?

With the growth in number of older people, especially with the “wave” of baby-boomers working their way into later life, governments overlook the rights and needs of older people at their peril, given their growing voting power. But there is a less selfish reason. Respect for older people’s rights benefits everyone. Because, if violation of these rights leads to exclusion, poverty and discrimination, then society is robbing itself of the potential that older people represent and of their contributions based on their experience and wisdom.

Useful material can be found in the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, July 2012. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/OlderPersons/Pages/OlderPersonsIndex.aspx

And a statement by HelpAge International Human Rights Watch.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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5 Responses to What’s so special about human rights for older people?

  1. Have looked up the name of the Nigerian born doctor mentioned in my previous reply. He is Dr Osuntokum who when I last met him in 1989 was Director of Research for WHO. Margaret


  2. Interesting viewpoint. The UN would most probably point to the 1991 Principles for Older Persons which do cover more than health and social welfare. On the subject of dignity Section 15 Older persons should be able to live in dignity and security and be free of exploitation and physical or mental abuse. Section 16 Older persons should be treated fairly regardless of age,gender, racial or ethnic background, disability or status, and be valued independently of their economic contribution.
    In UN papers associated with the prior UN Assembly on Ageing i 1982, at which I was a member of the NZ delegation, it was recognised that the vast gulf between countries, like NZ where OP are comparatively well treated relative to some other regions, where, the delegate from Nigeria, a physician told of older rural Africans who, when they ceased to be useful, knew they were expected to crawl under a bush, minus food, drink and shelter to die. Under those circumstances it was remarkable for the UN to finally agree to request member countries to adhere to the Principles, initially worked on in Vienna 1982 by 1991. But I do know that the Nigerian said it was better to be aspirational than not agree to the Principles as a benchmark to which every nation should aspire when I met up with him again in 1989 in Geneva. Good point of discussion Judith. Kindest regards, Margaret


  3. Wendy Bremner says:

    an interesting read and something we should definitely support to protect people from ageism and elder abuse


  4. Good to see the emphasis on rights as a factor in “the potential that older people represent and of their contributions based on their experience and wisdom .. “. Should we be lifting the age for defining “older people”? 60 now seems young!


  5. Carol Andrews says:

    Interesting and thought provoking. Thank you


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