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Aged people are too often ignored and denied their full human rights

Strasbourg 28/04/2008
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Older people have the same rights as others. Because of their vulnerability they need special protection and already the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated specifically that elderly persons have the right to security. Many of the subsequent human rights treaties stipulate basic rights for aged people, one example is the revised European Social Charter. However, the rights of old persons are still often ignored and sometimes totally denied. They suffer from widespread perceptions that they are non-productive and worthless in modern society. It is time for a more constructive debate on how human rights for the older generation can be ensured.

One problem is that older people in general do often not have a strong say in politics. Organisations defending their interests are – with few exceptions - weak and political parties tend to focus on younger generations. The fact that a clear majority of the elderly are women may also have contributed to this lack of political attention.

The revised European Social Charter contains the first binding human rights provision for the protection of the rights of the elderly. The main objective is to enable older persons to lead a decent life and participate in society. To put this into practice, states should ensure that their social protection systems, health care and housing policies are suited for older people. They should also enact non-discrimination legislation in certain areas including the labour market.

A growing number of those who reach retirement age are perfectly fit and would prefer to continue their professional activities. This fact has not provoked the necessary rethink about how the professional skills, experience and dedication of these individuals could be utilised for the common good. Special attention should be given to ensure that older people who may lack advanced formal qualifications have the possibility to continue their working life. Age is not a valid reason to disregard someone in the recruitment procedure nor for dismissal, except if this is in accordance with the pension system.(1)

More flexibility on retirement ages on the basis of personal preferences and capabilities would be logical. With some adjustments in working conditions, including work hours, many more would like to continue long after the present pension day. A UN conference stated some years ago that ‘older persons should have the opportunity to work as long as they wish and are able to, in satisfying and productive work.’(2)

Many of these at the age of 60+ will live for two or three decades beyond retirement and in some cases even longer. The number of very old persons is now growing rapidly in countries all over Europe. This is a category which in many cases will require special care, as some of them are clearly dependent and suffer from dementia and/or other disabilities.

Protection measures should be flexible so as to fit the individual needs and they should only be put in place in those fields of the individual’s life where they are indispensable. It should also be possible for an individual, at a time when he or she is still capable, to make decisions on what should happen in the future and who should act as his or her representative in case of an eventual incapacity. Such measures of self-determination are in line with the respect for the dignity of each person as a human being. That is why the Council of Europe is at present working on a recommendation protecting incapable adults when such incapacity occurs.

The increasing number of elderly people will inevitably be a strain on the social and health care system. Even with a more flexible pension policy, there will in economic terms be a less favourable relationship in future between the proportion of the population working and those dependent. However, a humane and just society must accept that responsibility and respect the human dignity and rights of the very oldest. Health care systems should implement age-friendly policies and practices and consider healthy ageing.

Many of the elderly are poor, their human right to an adequate standard of living is not respected. Not least in the transition countries old people have suffered from the changes and of course have had little possibility to compensate price increases with more work or higher salaries. A great number of them have had to accept, for instance, a dramatic downturn in housing standards. The term ‘lost generation’ is sadly appropriate.

New social security strategies are required in order for older people to have adequate protection in the future. Also in countries where social security is more protected, there is a need to review aspects of how older people are treated. There have been too many reports about bad treatment and even abuse in institutions for elderly – some of them privately run. In every case, this is an unacceptable failure, made worse by the fact that the residents in these homes are often unable to claim their rights and even less able to defend themselves against abuse.

During my travels in European countries I have seen the extremes: both modern and homelike institutions with a democratic atmosphere and excellent medical care but also centres in which the inmates were reduced to numbers and the staff untrained, overstretched and resigned. There is clearly a need in some countries to monitor the conditions in institutions for old persons much more thoroughly.

Persons living in institutions should of course get appropriate care and services. Their right to privacy and dignity should be fully respected. They have also the right to participate in decisions concerning their treatment as well as the conditions of the institution. Independent complaints and inspection systems should be set up to prevent ill-treatment and promote quality care. As the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly has proposed, European model rules on minimum standards for elderly persons in institutional care should be drawn up.

Even in countries with aged-friendly institutions, many elderly prefer to stay at home as long as possible. This requires another care organisation from the social authorities. Such reforms have indeed taken place in many countries. However, it is my impression that more could be done to offer the elderly more choices and more influence on what care they would prefer now and later. One aspect is to give more priority to supporting and sometimes off-loading family members who assist daily their elderly. The well-being of care givers has a significant impact on the quality of care and on the dignity and quality of life of the dependent person.

Among the very old there are those who are particularly vulnerable. We know that aged women suffer discrimination in some cases and that they often receive a reduced pension allowance because they have had to care for family members rather than being professionally active.

Persons with disabilities face particular difficulties which are increased as a consequence of the ageing process: for instance, reduced vision, reduced hearing or reduced mobility. This has to be taken into account when designing policies and programmes. The ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which creates a number of safeguards for such persons, should be given a high priority as well as the implementation of the Council of Europe Disability Action Plan 2006-2015.

Vulnerable are also many older migrants, some of whom have language difficulties. With a growing immigrant population European countries are here faced with a challenge for which the authorities seem to be grossly unprepared. The result is that individuals are discriminated against on several grounds.

I suggest that European political leaders review their own policies for the rights of old people – before they themselves have to experience the consequences of their present-day policies, or lack thereof.

Thomas Hammarberg


1. Art 23 and 24 of the revised European Social Charter.
2. United Nations 2nd World Assembly on Ageing, Madrid 2002.