Old and Forgotten: Why We Need a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons
On the completion of his one hundredth lap around his garden, walker in hand, medals on his chest, Captain Tom Moore reported that he felt “fine”. The British centenarian and Army veteran greatly exceeded his aim of raising £1000 to support the NHS’ COVID-19 efforts, capturing the attention and admiration of Great Britain by raising over £33 million. That was in April 2020.
Ten months later, following his valiant efforts to lift the country’s spirits and subsequent knighthood by the Queen, Sir Tom died from coronavirus. Many would say he epitomised a life well-lived and according to his daughters, his last year was “nothing short of remarkable.” Last year, Sir Tom stood out as the anomaly in a health crisis that has shone a spotlight on the vulnerability of older people in our communities. Praised for his strength, contribution and autonomy, he countered the narrative that older people are not deserving of dignity or a voice. And yet sadly this year, he became one of the millions of people who have lost their lives to the pandemic and one of the 11.6 per cent of fatal cases in Britain’s over 75 age-bracket.
COVID-19 has reignited debate about the need for a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons. From age-based stay at home orders to the virus’ devastation in aged care homes, from impacts on superannuation to mandated exclusion from vaccine trials, older people have at once been at the centre of government policy and completely left out of the conversation. With the global population of people aged 60 and above estimated to reach 2 billion in 2050, this debate is only going to become more important over time.
In this context, what are the issues facing older generations? How has COVID-19 escalated these problems? And would a UN Convention help alleviate any of them?
The Problems Abound
Intersectionality is an essential consideration when examining any human rights issue or treaty. Older people have specific needs and face distinct human rights issues such as “poverty, aged-related discrimination and elder abuse.” Distressingly, the WHO estimates that around 1 in 6 people over 60 years old experienced some form of abuse in community settings during the past year, and with high levels of underreporting this number is likely to be much higher. Another study reveals that in OECD countries, an average of 12.5 per cent of individuals aged over 65 live in relative income poverty. Moreover, age discrimination in the work place is one of the “most normalised” forms of discrimination with mandatory retirement ages and older job seekers less likely to be hired. These examples detail the breadth of issues affecting older people at a global scale.
Ageing affects different groups in different ways. Older women experience significantly more financial insecurity and domestic violence than men. Older members of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities experience poorer health outcomes, social exclusion, barriers to healthcare and access to technology. Furthermore, Indigenous Australians have lamented the lack of “culturally safe” aged care, particularly given the higher rates of illness and lower life expectancies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
COVID: The Great Exacerbator
The health impact of the pandemic on older people has been enormous. There have been instances of aged care services with insufficient PPE, non-consensual Do Not Resuscitate orders placed on care plans and a common global failure to prevent COVID-related deaths in aged care homes. To add insult to injury, some of these losses have not been included in official statistics. In August 2020, Australia’s Royal Commission into Aged Care heard that the sector was unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and that age-based discrimination had occurred; a prime example being NSW Health’s decision not to transfer aged-care residents to hospital. Meanwhile, non-COVID support services have been deprioritised and isolation has prompted increased calls to abuse hotlines. Older peoples’ mental health has also been sidelined as residents of aged-care facilities are isolated, unable to have visitors or participate in activities.
Alongside and as a result of these health impacts, there has been a “rhetoric of disposability” according to Dr. Bronwen Lichtenstein. Ageist hashtags such as “boomer remover” and “YOLO grandparents” have made the rounds on social media, creating intergenerational division and an ‘us versus them’ mentality. However, Lichtenstein argues that ageism has also had a benevolent political mask as older people have been ‘ghettoised’ through age-segregation for the purposes of “risk mitigation”. Countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden took herd immunity approaches to the virus at various times. Such an approach made many older citizens feel disposable, weak and undervalued. The terms “elderly” and “economy” became intrinsically connected in politicians’ speeches and this supposedly economically superior approach seriously backfired. Sweden’s GDP fell by 7.7 per cent and the nation has suffered 1 247 deaths per million to date. Herd immunity’s unethical and inhumane nature has become increasingly apparent and shown holes in systems that do not take care of their vulnerable, old or poor.
Another impact has been increased financial insecurity for retirees, as many older people withdrew their superannuation early or cut back on necessities. These impacts disproportionately affect women as a result of the gender pay gap and the fairly recent introduction of superannuation for “the generation of Australian women presently over 55.” The economic shock of COVID-19 may be alleviated in the short term for those Australians who withdrew up to $20 000 of their super early, however the long term security of this “safety-net” has been undermined.
With vaccines now being rolled out across the world there is hope that older people will regain some of their lost autonomy. However, research has indicated that older persons are “likely to be excluded from more than 50 per cent of COVID-19 clinical trials and 100 per cent of vaccine trials.” This is particularly concerning given that the adverse effects may not be known, and older people are some of the first to receive the vaccine. Evidently, COVID-19 has worsened many of the underlying issues in how older people are perceived, supported and treated in our society.
Are UN Conventions helpful?
Australia’s Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Hon Susan Ryan AO, spoke about the need for a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons in 2014. She noted that a convention would “raise more general awareness” and “provide a stimulus to domestic laws and policies.” Importantly she highlighted that a convention would “place an obligation on signatory states” to promote such rights and be held accountable through international monitoring. Although older people are protected by the Declaration of Human Rights and a few other treaty clauses, the lack of comprehensive and universal human rights conventions for older persons is worrying.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) are a few examples of similar international conventions that have had tangible impacts beyond being normative statements. Thirty five years after its ratification, a study showed that CEDAW had “positive and significant [effects] for political rights” but minimal social and economic rights improvements. Indeed, there is evidence to show that even if states comply with such treaties on a superficial level, often the mechanisms put in place create opportunities for NGOs to engage the government and promote real change.
Similarly, the CRC has been a “catalyst for real improvements” in childrens’ lives in less developed countries with increased vaccination rates and reductions in infant and under-5 mortality rates. Following the CRPD’s ratification in India, studies demonstrated a “growing awareness of the valuable economic contribution” appropriately supported disabled people can make to their communities. Moreover, the CRPD and akin conventions have provided valuable accountability and reflection points, often acting as “rallying calls” for change.
However, these conventions are also often touted as ineffective and useless. Some scholars note the absence of powerful countries as signatories, others that persuasion alone rarely prompts change. Moreover, some still believe them to be vague or utopian, citing the many human rights abuses that continue despite their ratification. Nevertheless, a convention has significant merit. It would strongly contribute to the much-needed “paradigm shift” away from perceiving older people as societal burdens, reframing them as “rights holders and active contributors to society.”
An Australian aged-care worker spoke bluntly to me about the general public’s lack of interest in this issue stating that, “We only care about old people when we have to look after one, or we are one.” This cognitive dissonance about our own mortality is perhaps partly to blame for why a relevant UN Convention is yet to be signed.
According to a number of key advocates for this new international instrument, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that “age discrimination is rarely treated with the same gravity in law and practice as other forms of discrimination.” It is hoped that a convention would change this by offering concrete ways to involve older people in policy development, supporting their autonomy and elevating the importance for their care, dignity and wellbeing in order to achieve positive outcomes. Human rights advocates would be able to use the convention as a tool to urge government action and individuals could “use international law to advance their rights” at a national level, as demonstrated by past successful cases in Canada and Botswana.
Sir Captain Tom Moore’s understated and optimistic “I feel fine”, almost a year ago, speaks volumes. Many of the older people in our communities are fine. Yet, restrictions on their movement as a result of the pandemic has seriously stifled their independence, not accounting for the experiential diversity among older generations. Indeed, so many older people provide vital care to family members, volunteer their time or have wished to return to work from retirement to help during this crisis. Nevertheless, there are so many issues affecting older people that are evidently not “fine”.
The UN Open Ended Working Group on Ageing (OWEGA), established in 2010, has identified significant challenges faced by older people and the gaps in their protection. However, the coronavirus pandemic has shone an even harsher light than OWEGA’s work to date, generating stronger calls for the establishment of a binding international instrument dedicated to the protection of older persons’ human rights. It is in all our interests to make such a commitment because in an ideal world we will all grow old, and I for one would like to do so with dignity and support.
Evangeline Larsen holds Dual Bachelors of Arts from Sciences Po, France and the University of Sydney. Currently undertaking her Masters of Peace and Conflict Studies and working as a mediator, she is passionate about conflict resolution, Middle Eastern politics and Human Rights.