Elderly across Europe live in extreme hardship and poverty

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 05/08/2010
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Hundreds of thousands of elderly persons across Europe are struggling for their everyday survival. Many suffer a shocking level of poverty. They tend to be ignored by politicians and are often seen as being non-productive and worthless in modern society. The human rights of the older generation must not be further undermined when governments introduce their austerity programs.

The elderly is one of the vulnerable groups that have been deeply affected by the economic crises. In Europe especially, ageing persons in the so-called transition countries have been hit hard. The number of elderly people begging in the streets goes to prove that their human right to an adequate standard of living is not respected. The term ‘lost generation’ is sadly appropriate.

Within the vulnerable group of elderly people, there are those who are particularly at risk. Elderly women often receive a reduced pension allowance because they have cared for family members rather than being professionally active. With a growing immigrant population the number of older migrants is also increasing. Their wellbeing is a challenge for which the authorities in European countries seem to be grossly unprepared.

Pension reforms will hit hard

In the wake of the economic crises several countries have been forced to reform their pension systems. The risk that several generations will face poverty as they grow old is a reality that seemingly still has not been fully understood by everyone.

The European Social Charter states that “every elderly person has the right to social protection”. This means that states must ensure that pensions are sufficient to allow elderly persons to lead a “decent life”. Pensions should therefore be index-linked and related to average wage levels and the overall cost of living.

The number of people in the EU aged 65 and above is expected to grow by 70% by 2050, and the number of people aged over 80 by 170%, according to the EU Health Directorate. This will not only require new social security strategies, but it will also have strong implications for health care systems. Age-friendly policies and more focus on the prevention of chronic diseases, which actually cause more disability than ageing itself, will be necessary.

Many want to work longer

Meanwhile, a growing number of those who reach retirement age are perfectly fit and would prefer to continue their professional activities. However, many are marginalised by age-related discrimination in hiring, promotion and dismissal. They are denied the right to work.This fact has not provoked the necessary rethink about how professional skills, experience and dedication could be utilised for the common good as a person gets older. More flexibility on retirement ages on the basis of personal preferences and capabilities would be logical, especially when there are not enough resources for decent pensions.

Politicians grow old too…

Older people do not have a strong say in politics and media. Their rights are often ignored and sometimes totally denied. The fact that a clear majority of the elderly are women may also have contributed to this lack of political attention.

European political leaders need to review their own policies for the rights of elderly people. They should do this before they themselves have to experience the dire consequences of their present-day policies.

Thomas Hammarberg