This week in New York City, older people, government representatives, human rights organisations and NGOs from around the world, will meet for the 9th time to discuss the human rights of older people. More specifically, the purpose of this meeting is to consider whether it is time for the international community to have a Convention on the rights of older persons.
Age UK and Age International believe that yes, it is time. There is a big gap in the coverage of older persons’ human rights, which advocates for older people have been raising for a long time. There is a Convention on the Rights of the Child, a Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and a Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. So why not something for older people?
In essence, this gap is symptomatic of the problem. The lack of specific interest in the human rights of older persons both at the domestic and international level arises because the contravention of human rights of older people, and the ageism that underpins it, isn’t as obvious or perhaps as well understood as other human rights abuses. We tend to think of older people as more financially secure than younger people and being happily looked after by their families as they age. However the reality of older people’s lives is that they are subject to persistent ageism that ignores their views and undermines their autonomy over their lives – not to mention the increasing number of people who are ageing without family nearby. As the world population becomes increasingly ‘older’, the time is now right for a Convention on the rights of older persons.
Luckily, there is support from many member states around the world and as this support grows, attention is increasingly being paid to the specific standards it should contain. This year the focus is on the right to autonomy and independence and long-term and palliative care. How does this apply to the UK? Despite existing domestic human rights and equalities legislation, older people in the UK continue to face extensive discrimination and human rights abuses in their daily lives that curtail their ability to live independently and autonomously. Take, for example, the crisis in funding for social care in the UK, which poses a real threat to older people’s ability to uphold their independence and autonomy as they lose control over daily activities and where and when they receive social care. What this means in reality is that there are now more than a million older people who have difficulty with daily living activities such as eating, bathing and taking their medication, whose needs are not fully met by either paid or unpaid carers thereby severely limiting their ability to live independently.
Ageism and discrimination prevent many older people from accessing health, financial services, housing and employment, increasing their dependence on others and depriving them of the ability to live independently and autonomously.
Age UK strongly believes that a UN Convention on the rights of older persons which has at its core an emphasis on promoting and protecting older people’s rights to autonomy and independence and support for independent living would help to address these issues.
In palliative care, although the UK is generally seen as a pioneer, this is not always played out in the experiences of many individuals and their families. Many older people experience unnecessary pain and other symptoms, being treated with a lack of dignity and respect, and many people do not die where they would choose to die.
A right to palliative care situated within a UN Convention on the rights of older persons could encompass a right to choose where to die, to refuse medical treatment or to withdraw consent, a right to equal access to holistic palliative care without delay, including pain relief, and access to end of life care, including making advance instructions on the type of care provided.
These are just some of the reasons why we call on the UK Government to support the creation of a UN convention, while at the same time preserving and enhancing these rights through domestic legislation.