No where does it say our rights change as we age

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Many observers might ask, what is the relevance of human rights to an ageing population? The view that exclusion and poverty are inevitable facets of ageing may indeed obscure the obvious, that it is exactly as we become more frail and vulnerable that our human rights are most at risk.  A series of different questions were tackled at the ILC-UK Global Conference ‘Human Rights in an Ageing World’. Presentations were made by a variety of different speakers, including Michael Wills MP, Dr Robert Butler – Chief Executive of the ILC-USA, Dr Alex Kalache – Director of the World Health Organisation’s Ageing and Lifecourse Programme and Trevor Phillips – Chair of the Commission on Equality and Human Rights. Topics included the human rights situation of older people around the world, practical perspectives on the use of human rights in tackling discrimination and poverty, and the risks and opportunties presented by ongoing developments in the field.  In summary, older populations around the world face vastly different living circumstances. It is worth remembering that 80% of the world’s population do not have any social security. Human rights in this situation may be dominated less by concepts of dignity and inclusion but by the hard reality of day-to-day survival. Yet the problems that all older people experience in their daily lives are likely to share common themes: social exclusion, difficulty accessing services, discrimination in the public sphere and a perception that they are somehow second class citizens.

Most countries are signatories to the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights , which proclaim that the ‘inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. Yet no where does it say that our rights change as we age. 

How can we summarise what human rights might look like for older people?  Baroness Greengross summarised that the acronym FREDA provides five key points: Fairness, Respect, Equality, Dignity and Autonomy. 

Yet the reality for most older people around the world is that human rights are most relevant to the issue of poverty and access to services. After all ‘what use is freedom without bread, or the right to free speech without education?’ Organisational barriers to services, for example preventing access to healthcare and social security, form the most tangible, daily infringements of older people’s human rights. These can take several forms: whether they are direct discrimination, such as refusing services to older people or indirect discrimination, for example confusing and inaccessible bureaucracy that older people find the hardest to navigate, or even engage with at all, if offices are not located  nearby.  

Adopting a human rights approach could be a crucial foundation to reform. This approach dictates that access to key services are an inalienable right for all people, not a welfare need. Where services work to deliver rights, they may operate with consideration for the dignity and diversity of older people. Where services meet welfare needs, we may see the older person as an unwanted burden, to be fitted in at the convenience of the system, not the other way around. 

A human rights approach to older people’s needs therefore helps us to plan for the diversity of older people’s circumstances. After all, we are not all the same, but rather we are equal in our difference. It also helps us to overturn the prejudice that many older people experience in trying to meet their needs for education, health, community, leisure, work and overall wellbeing. 

Older people in the UK enjoy much better rights than many around the world, but the situation is far from perfect. There are gaps in our discrimination legislation, for example gender, sexual orientation and race are grounds for discrimination in access to goods and services, a huge part of our daily lives, but age is not. Private care homes are not covered by the 2004 Human Rights Act, although most homes are in this sector. Interestingly, the Joint Commission for Equality and Human Rights has recommended that a Human Rights approach was the correct legal avenue through which to challenge examples of care home abuse. 

Michael Wills MP led the conference to understand that the UK Government is committed to a swift resolution of this problem, although a timetable has not yet been set. 

There are limits to how human rights can be used, but it is helpful to remember the core principles of the UN declaration, formed after the abuses of WWII, is not simply about protecting criminals from punishment, despite what many newspapers would have us believe. 

Despite the overly negative perception of the role of human rights in some sections of the media, the conference made it clear that transnational treaties led by transnational bodies, such as the European Union and the United Nations, have a vital role to play in rallying nations to a higher standard of human rights protection as standard. We must continue to press intergovernmental bodies to ensure that that all human rights are improved across the world, not just those of older people. For many countries the first step must be some form of social pension as standard, and some form of access to education and healthcare, without with further rights are meaningless. 

The Prime Minister has commented in recent months that he was going to reform policy in this area – this must include protection against discrimination in areas that are not covered by the Human Rights Act. Furthermore, we urgently need a review of discrimination laws in the UK. These should include positive duty to promote age equality, including access to goods and services.   In summary, full and equal human rights for older people are not just a means to close legal gaps in human rights legislation, although in theory no other form of discrimination should receive more public interest given that we must all one day achieve senior citizenship. They are also a means to ensure timely and appropriate services, later life employment, and active and inclusive citizenship, meaning the best chance of enhanced wellbeing, and good mental and physical health as we age. In an ageing society, where more people are over 65+ than under-16, what could be a higher priority for the national interest?

Ed Harding

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