Treating people differently just because they are old is a form of discrimination which remains unchallenged, writes Ioan Voicu
In accordance with a recent assessment formulated by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “globalization has been an incredible generator of wealth and prosperity, improving living conditions mostly everywhere in the world, decreasing absolute poverty quite substantially.” However, from the same assessment we learn that the asymmetric effects of globalization cannot be ignored.
Globalization had its losers, and “it is very important to recognize that there are many people left behind, and in many societies this generates a reaction against globalization,” asserted António Guterres. That may be valid in many fields, and also in the case of older persons or senior citizens who are subject to undeserved marginalization and are not portrayed and perceived as equal actors in their communities.
In an article published one year ago in insideasean.com, we have tried to summarize some fundamental facts, findings and relevant opinions about ageing during the current era of globalization.
Is there anything really new and significant to be expected and discussed today about the unavoidable ageing phenomenon?
The first attractive answer is provided by scholars. What do they say?
Firstly, quite recent studies predict that while most people born in rich countries will live longer by 2030, with women in South Korea projected to reach nearly 91, citizens of many other countries will continue to have low life expectancy.
In the past, an average life expectancy beyond 90 was considered to be impossible. Yet, medical progress and adequate social programs have created conditions under which people might reach 110 or even 120 years.
Secondly, some researchers used longevity trends to predict life expectancy in 35 developed countries starting their calculations from the hypothesis of a baby born in 2030.
Women would be ahead of men in all countries. Behind South Korea mentioned above, women in France, Japan, Spain and Switzerland were projected to live until 88. For South Korean men, life expectancy is anticipated to reach 84. Next are Australia, Switzerland, Canada and the Netherlands at nearly 84. At the bottom of the list: Macedonia for women at nearly 78, and Serbia for men at about 73.
Genetic factors are not sufficient to explain the longevity in certain countries, as social and environmental factors have an important role to play in the life of all human beings. That brings the whole discussion on this topic to an obvious planetary level.
While the findings and conclusions of scientists on ageing have an obvious value in the process of increasing longevity in general, they have to be confronted with the collective opinions expressed on this matter at the global level by the world community of nations, as illustrated in specific resolutions adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on behalf of 193 Member States.
Evaluating critically the results of the follow-up to the Second World Assembly on Ageing (2002), in December 2016 the UN General Assembly recognized in a comprehensive resolution that, in many parts of the world, awareness of the Plan of Action of that World Assembly remains limited or non-existent.
This fact is alarming. The resolution itself explains why it is so.
Between 2015 and 2030, the number of persons aged 60 years or over is projected to grow by 56 per cent, from 901 million to 1.4 billion, and this increase will be the greatest and the most rapid in the developing world. The global population of older persons is expected to rise to 2.1 billion by 2050, when there will be roughly the same number of older persons and children under 15.
Therefore, greater attention needs to be paid to the specific challenges affecting older persons, including in the field of human rights. That demands inter alia action-oriented measures for strengthening active and healthy ageing, stressing the important role of public health policies and programs in enabling the rapidly growing number of older persons to remain in good health and maintain their many vital contributions to the well-being of their families, communities and societies.
Acting in this spirit, the World Health Organization adopted in May 2016 a document entitled “The Global strategy and action plan on ageing and health 2016–2020: towards a world in which everyone can live a long and healthy life.” However, many health systems are not sufficiently prepared to respond to the needs of the rapidly ageing population, including the need for preventive, curative, palliative and specialized care. It should be also added that the situation of older persons in many parts of the world has been negatively affected by the world financial and economic crisis, and in particular by poverty.
In the light of this assessment, the UN General Assembly called upon all States to cooperate, support and participate in the global efforts towards the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development promising to leave no one behind and to mobilize all necessary resources and assistance in that regard, according to national plans and strategies, including through an integrated and multifaceted approach to improving the well-being of older persons.
In a more direct manner, the UN General Assembly called upon all States to promote and ensure the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for older persons, including by progressively taking measures to combat age discrimination, neglect, abuse and violence, to provide social protection, access to food and housing, health care, employment, legal capacity and access to justice and to address issues related to social integration and gender inequality, bearing in mind the crucial importance of inter-generational family interdependence, solidarity and reciprocity for social development.
To that end, it is recommended to adopt strategies that take into account the entirety of the human life course and foster inter-generational solidarity, the strengthening of institutional mechanisms, research, data collection and analysis and the training of necessary personnel in the field of ageing, participatory consultations with relevant stakeholders and social development partners, in the interest of developing effective policies that create national policy ownership and consensus-building. It is requested that universal health coverage must include older persons, enabling them to have access, without discrimination, to nationally determined sets of needed promotive, preventive, curative and rehabilitative basic health services and essential, safe, affordable, effective and quality medicines.
Towards a universal instrument
From a legal perspective, the UN General Assembly encouraged Member States to continue to consider “possible content for a multilateral legal instrument” for the protection of the human rights of older persons. This provision of the resolution is too modest. There is a strong trend in favor of the elaboration of a universal agreement for the protection of rights of older people.
At the regional level a promising step has been taken by the adoption of the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons (2015) which can be used as a model for negotiating a similar universal legal instrument on the matter. This comprehensive Convention (41 articles) which entered into force on January 11, 2017 defines ageing as a gradual process that develops over the course of life and entails biological, physiological, psycho-social, and functional changes with varying consequences, which are associated with permanent and dynamic interactions between the individuals and their environment.
Many non-governmental organizations made vibrant appeals addressed to the UN for speeding up the preparation of an appropriate universal legal instrument. The reasons for such a demand are numerous and highly persuasive. It is quite instructive to remind some of these reasons.
While in principle existing human rights instruments apply equally across lifetime of all human beings, in reality people encounter systematic and structural inequalities when they get older. The lack of visibility of specific challenges facing senior citizens in current human rights instruments creates barriers to the equal and full enjoyment of human rights by people when they get older. Senior citizens are often excluded, have fewer choices and are offered services of poor quality on account of their old age; they frequently lack equal access to training, employment and health care; and they are regularly de-prioritized or even overlooked in policy reforms. Treating people differently just because they are old is a form of discrimination which remains unchallenged because ageism is pervasive and entrenched in many national societies.
The contributions of older people to society are often devalued and old age is considered by many persons as synonymous with decline, burden and uselessness. An authentic human rights approach is needed to enable older people to be full actors in society and to offer their knowledge, skills and experience through civic participation and public engagement to help shape a better world for all.
The lifetime knowledge of senior citizens, their talents and competence are an added value for society and should be seriously taken into account.
That purpose could be achieved through a UN universal convention which could help older people contribute, prosper and equally enjoy their rights. Such a legal instrument would represent an important acknowledgement that older citizens are of equal value to society. At the same time, it could contribute to improving older persons’ awareness of their specific rights, empower them as rights holders, and help fight ageist stereotypes.
There is no doubt that in order to be really effective the future legal instrument/convention should contain clear provisions for a stronger monitoring process with regard to the human rights situation of older people worldwide, in order to put an end to the destructive practice of ageism.
In conclusion, some hope can be expressed that in 2017 the traditional UN message on the occasion of the International Day of Older Persons, celebrated on October 1st, will not be, as in the past, a collection of platitudes, but will be a vibrant and robust appeal for universal recognition that as human beings age, they must continue to enjoy a full, independent, and autonomous life, health, safety, integration, and active participation in the economic, social, cultural and political spheres of their national societies, in conformity with the value of solidarity and complementarity in global and regional cooperation.
Dr Ioan Voicu is a visiting professor at Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand.