Human Rights Advocacy
The rights of the senior citizens
Many governments have support systems in place for elderly persons such as social security and free or discounted medical care, for example. However, most of these systems were built on the premise that there will always be significantly fewer older persons than younger or middle-aged individuals living at one time. Because of declining death rates, therefore, these systems are beginning to feel a strain that will only increase over time. Additionally, the older-person support ratio is falling in both more and less developed regions, which could further lessen the ability of societies and governments to care for their aging populations.
These demographic trends create unique challenges for all people, particularly for the governments of nation-states around the globe. Elderly individuals are often subject to discrimination and abuse because they are perceived as easily taken advantage of. There is also a prevalent belief among many that elderly persons are worthless in today's fast-paced, globalised and increasingly industrialised world. Obviously, with the number of elderly people on earth at any one time rising rapidly, there is an increased urgency to address the rights and roles of elderly persons in our world.
Rights at Stake
The rights of aged persons can be broken down into three main categories: protection, participation and image. Protection refers to securing the physical, psychological and emotional safety of elderly persons with regard to their unique vulnerability to abuse and ill treatment. Participation refers to the need to establish a greater and more active role for older persons in society. Image refers to the need to define a more positive, less degrading and discriminatory idea of who elderly persons are and what they are capable of doing. Regional intergovernmental organizations in particular have begun to deal with these categories of rights in some detail in their recommendations and treaties.
Special consideration for the rights of the elderly has been granted relatively recently in recommendations and treaties between international instruments, like the Council of Europe. These more detailed recommendations and agreements on the rights of the elderly, however, are all based upon the fundamental premises established in documents like the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Article 25, paragraph 1, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is established that:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Elderly persons' right to security is particularly vulnerable to violation. For example, a component of the right to security is the right to healthcare if one, due to old age, is unable to afford or pursue healthcare on one's own. Although many countries currently have universal healthcare systems, these systems are beginning to feel the strain of an increasingly aged population, and there is some question about how these systems will be maintained in the future. In other countries, like the United States, where there are only federally and state-subsidized healthcare programs for those who are indigent, disabled or elderly, rising healthcare costs are threatening the survival of these systems. These rights are related to the right to an adequate standard of living, which is often affected in the case of the elderly, due to lack of an adequate support system for them.
Elderly individuals also have the right to non-discrimination. Elderly people should not be thought of as useless to society simply because some of them may need more care than the average person. These stereotypes of the elderly can lead to degrading treatment, inequality and, sometimes, abuse.
Similarly, elderly persons' right to participation is sometimes threatened due to prevailing negative images societies hold of the aged. The aged are often not given the same opportunities as others to be productive members of society. Governments are obliged to aid in creating a more positive image of the abilities and strengths of older populations as well as solid opportunities for elderly people to participate in the ongoing creation of their societies.
The elderly's right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is also often threatened. People sometimes take advantage of the vulnerability of elderly persons. People in old age, particularly older women, are often victims of neglect and physical and psychological abuse. Additionally, elderly refugees during humanitarian crises often fall victim to the torture and abuse that is sometimes inflicted upon civilian populations.
Who is most at risk for having their rights, as elderly persons, violated?
Elderly women are at the greatest risk for having their rights violated. In general, women are historically more vulnerable toward violence due to their traditionally subordinate position in most cultures. Coupled with the negative image many cultures hold of elderly people, being a woman can make one particularly susceptible to violence and abuse. Considering that 55 percent of older persons are women and that, in the oldest old category 65 percent are women, special consideration must be given to the effect of sex on the likelihood of rights violation and abuse.
ILO Recommendation No. 162 concerning Older Workers (1980) (section II, paragraph 5(g))
This recommendation states that older workers must enjoy equality of opportunity and treatment with other workers without age discrimination, including access to housing, social services and health institutions, particularly when this access is related to occupational activity or employment.
National Assistance, Protection and Service Agencies
Much is currently being done on an international level to prepare for the ensuing crisis of our world's aging population. It is widely recognised that the elderly are often victims of discrimination and abuse and that their unique needs are often not sufficiently met by their governments and communities. Additionally, societies have still not clearly established a new, more active role for our world's elderly citizens in creating culture and community, nor have many programs been developed to enable the elderly to more actively participate in society.
In fact, most of what has been accomplished in protecting the rights of the elderly has been done, thus far, in an intergovernmental international or regional setting. Many governments of nation-states, unfortunately, are experiencing serious crises in implementing or maintaining protection programs for their elderly citizenry. For example, currently, in the United States, the social security system is at risk of being overhauled and privatized, or, some fear, eventually dismantled. Additionally, Medicare, a healthcare system for people ages 65 and older, sometimes does not sufficiently cover the healthcare costs of those elderly people who are indigent, nor does it cover the cost of prescription medications. Furthermore, the cost of these medications is rapidly rising. Many elderly citizens, unable to afford their medications, will skip doses. Some of these medications are necessary to the survival of these individuals.
Even in countries that have well-established universal healthcare systems, like Canada and most European countries, rising healthcare costs have caused governments to make cutbacks in services offered to their citizens. Also, these governments have an interest in keeping the prices of prescription drugs down primarily because they cover the majority of the cost of these drugs. Therefore, new medicines that could be beneficial to citizens often are delayed in their entrance into the market because of negotiations over costs between drug companies and governments. Furthermore, the wait for nonessential surgeries and medical procedures can be years in some countries with universal healthcare.
Regardless of these problems, there are many national nongovernmental organisations that perform advocacy and policy-related work for elderly individuals. In 1989 the World Medical Association adopted the Declaration of Hong Kong on the Abuse of the Elderly. This declaration assesses the abuse of the elderly against their frequent background of dependency on others for assistance and their and tendency toward pathological problems, motor disturbances, psychic and orientation disorders. The World Medical Association, therefore, establishes that the elderly have the same rights to care and welfare as all other human beings. Physicians have a responsibility to prevent the abuse of their elderly patients. They also are obliged to report suspected cases of physical and psychological abuse to the proper local authorities. Additionally, in order to ensure the protection of the elderly, they should be able to freely exercise their right to choose their own physician.
Source: Human Rights Education Associates.