From the United Nations to the World of Business: A Focus on the Rights of the Elderly

This summer, I stepped away from my work at ACCESS Health to serve as an intern for World Information Transfer at the Economic and Social Council United Nations (ECOSOC). During my internship, I had the opportunity to attend the sixth session of the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing. The purpose of this working group is to strengthen human rights protections for the elderly. The panel and member states recognize the urgency and importance of taking action in response population aging worldwide. At the session, the working group engaged in an in depth discussion session to reexamine the existing international framework on the human rights of older persons. Members identified existing gaps at the international level. They also discussed current progress and challenges and the place of older persons’ human rights in the post 2015 development agenda.

The Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, adopted in 2002, served as the blueprint for international discussions around aging. Although the plan was widely referenced by most member states in the working group, a vast range of opinions exist about proposing a new human rights convention specific to the elderly. Lower and middle income countries, such as Brazil and Costa Rica, sought agreement on a new convention to secure resources and political will. Some middle and higher income countries, such as Canada and China, favored the enhancement of the current framework to avoid the creation of double human right standards across different age groups.

The Special Vulnerability of the Elderly

Over the past few decades, several major natural disasters have exposed the special vulnerability of older persons. The elderly are overrepresented in the death tolls following disasters and emergencies. During the meeting, Edward Gerlock from the Coalition of Services for the Elderly shared the difficulties he experienced aiding older persons in disaster and emergency settings and the challenges and loopholes identified by humanitarian aid teams. Marcus Skinner from HelpAge International spoke of the elderly left behind during Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans. Seventy one percent of those who died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were aged sixty years and older. Nations must refine policies to cover essential human rights in all situations. Policies should address secured social protection, employment, and social participation. The neglect of these areas may stem from ageism. These areas of concern should be considered in a more serious manner at the government policymaking level, specifically to provide protection for the elderly in humanitarian crises.

The Sustainable Development Goals and the Elderly

One of the key features of the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals is common but differentiated responsibility among countries. Yet, the fact of common but differentiated responsibility has highlighted differences in the pace of progress to improve the human rights of older persons at the international level. Niger has primarily focused human rights protections for older persons on medical care. The country relies largely on nongovernmental organizations to provide free treatments to the elderly for illnesses, such as cataracts. Many other countries, including Canada and Costa Rica, agree that social and legal protection for elderly citizens should be guaranteed by the government. Such differences in approach illustrate gaps in progress toward full human rights for the elderly. International nongovernmental organizations will explore differences and share good practices to accelerate progress in individual countries, this October, at the Twelfth International Conference of National Human Rights Institutions in Mexico.

The compatibility of the human rights agenda for the elderly with the Sustainable Development Goals underlines differences in the evaluation and assessment processes. If the international bodies wish to make the Sustainable Development Goals and a human rights agreement for the elderly go hand in hand, the review and evaluation processes for the Sustainable Development Goals must explicitly take into consideration the rights of the elderly. These rights may go unprotected if certain procedures are not amended. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provided guidelines for the application of the human rights instruments for the elderly, such as disaggregation of data, data collection safeguards, and specific measurements on needs and outcomes. If the new development agenda is to live up to its stated intention of “leaving no one behind,” the existing framework for the goals should be reassessed to make it more applicable for older persons. Further discussions on the review and evaluation of the Sustainable Development Goals will be held later this year.

Limitations in how we measure and monitor the success of the Sustainable Development Goals may make the achievement of leaving no one behind even more difficult. A representative from the United Nations Statistical Commission gave a detailed presentation on the statistical framework for the Sustainable Development Goals. The representative discussed implementation, monitoring, and analysis of the goals. The framework was highly comprehensive, yet data collected to assess progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals may not be useful for those looking to protect the rights of the elderly. The framework offered only limited coverage. Current statistics focus on productive ages, from fifteen to forty nine only. The data do not take the elderly into consideration. We must adopt questions and surveys to capture needs that are specific to older persons. These challenges should be taken seriously to ensure that the elderly will not be left behind in the Sustainable Development Goals era.

Active Aging Around the World

Active aging, staying active and engaged in society and in the economy as we age, is vital to maintaining a good quality of life. In fact, active aging is recognized as a right in itself. Active aging is beneficial, not just for the elderly, but also for their families, communities, and the societies in which they live. Studies from the Global AgeWatch Index show that a fuller realization of active aging remains an aspiration, even in the most developed welfare states of the European Union. Asghar Zaidi from the Southampton University Centre for Research on Ageing collaborated with the European Union to design the AgeWatch Index. This index is considered to be the most comprehensive index of measurements of the level of active aging in a city. So far, the results have been disappointing.

A Vision for the Future

I hope that collaborative international efforts will translate rhetoric into action. I would like to see the national policies of more and more countries protect the different domains of human rights for the growing population of older persons. The protection of the human rights of the elderly warrants attention at the highest level of government and intergovernmental bodies. Political leaders should improve policy at the local level and secure resources for the execution and monitoring of these policies. Outside of the policy arena, innovations related to aging bring endless opportunities as well. I see potential for improvement by harnessing the forces in civil society. Innovative ideas, services models, and empowerment projects that lead to changes in social norms and attitudes can offer effective and low cost means to promote the concept of active aging. As part of the ACCESS Health International team, I am particularly excited about the Modern Aging program in Singapore, which officially kicked off last weekend. I look forward to seeing and taking part in vibrant discussions about how we can meet the opportunities brought about by the demographic shift. Innovations in business are enabling the elderly to live better and live longer as active and valuable members of society.