COVID-19: Did it change the way we address age and ageing?


UNIDOP UNECE event – UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

On 1st October, we celebrated this year the 30th anniversary of the International Day of Older People (IDOP) in the unprecedented and challenging context created by COVID-19. If one thing has changed for the best, it is undoubtedly the number of new supporters joining the debate. While revealing to us the pre-existing challenges experienced by older people, has the pandemic also created the momentum we need to change the way we think about and prepare for older age?

To mark the Day, the UN Secretary General António Guterres in his message invited everyone, as we seek to recover better together, to:

Listen to older people’s voices, suggestions and ideas to build more inclusive and age-friendly societies”.

The World Health Organisation’s Decade of Healthy Ageing, adopted last summer, has now been transmitted to the UN Secretary General for consideration by the General Assembly to make it a UN Decade of Healthy Ageing. More evidence about how we age will now be accessible thanks to the first global ageing data portal launched by the WHO to bring together global indicators for monitoring the health and well-being of people aged 60 and over.

Among international officials, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also encouraged a shift “moving away from an ageist, paternalistic view to one anchored in full respect for the equal rights and dignity of people of all ages.” As for the UN Independent Expert, Claudia Mahler, she called for more data to “shed light on structural and systematic ways in which older persons are left behind.”

At European level, European Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica for Democracy and Demography stressed the importance of protecting human rights in older age and recognising the opportunities that come with longer and healthier lives. European Commissioner Helena Dalli called for protection of older people’s rights and fostering contacts across generations.

The eloquent voices of human rights defenders

On the side of the civil society, major NGOs such as Amnesty International took a stand against ageism, the discrimination on the ground of age. In an inspiring speech, former Secretary General of Amnesty International Kumi Naidoo said:

“We are talking about a systemic problem which is systemic ageism and can only be addressed by systemic interventions. (…) We have to be thinking about how do we mobilise the voice and the participation of those people that are affected. Because the eloquence of their voices is much better than anybody else.”

“Politicians tell us [COVID-19 related] measures are to protect us. The truth is different” said Silvia from Romania. The tragedy in residential care is “the tip of the iceberg that has uncovered a reality that should at least alarm us” commented Fatec in Catalunya.

HelpAge International campaigned to highlight the assumptions we make about older people and encourage to think differently.

As the global ageing community gathered in online celebrations to mark the IDOP, older people’s organisations raised their voices around the world. Several AGE members spoke providing ideas for system change and asking for being involved in future debates:

  • In Slovenia, ZDUS refused to be “pushed into the position of an observer”
  • In Spain, Eusko Federpen claimed that “we want to continue contributing to society while we are healthy and we want to be cared for when we are already sick”
  • In Portugal, APRe! insisted this year on demanding policies that would promote social justice and ensure older people’s fundamental rights are not undermined
  • In Germany, BAGSO called on politics and media to change the way they portray older age in order to better reflect diversity of older people, to have a positive influence on older people’s self-image and to support the coexistence of generations

A renewed call for a UN Convention for the rights of older people

For the 380 NGOs composing the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People:

“The pandemic has exposed the universal nature of ageism and the systemic and persistent denial of older people’s rights, reinforcing the evidence and growing concerns around older people’s rights that has built up over the last ten years”

A UN Convention on older people’s rights would ensure that the violations of our human rights in older age seen during the COVID-19 pandemic never happen again, reads the alliance’s statement. An opinion that the Belgian Centre for Equal Opportunities Unia echoed… as well as Kumi Naidoo, ex-Secretary General of Amnesty International:

Secondly we have to have our eyes on legislation. (…) We need to push the UN convention on the rights of older people – not because UN conventions guarantee us anything – but actually what UN conventions do give us, it allows activists at the national level to go back to their governments and say: ‘hang on a minute, you signed this Convention at the global level, we want to see some of those things being happening in our national space’.”

Willing to help protect human rights in older age?
> Give a look at our joint paper explaining how a UN Convention on the rights of older persons would make a difference for equality, autonomy, freedom of violence, and health in old age.

Ongoing initiatives and cooperation took a new turn

Fortunately, the pandemic didn’t only exposed age discrimination and stigmas, it also reinvigorated international organisations and civil society groups that had long been working for a change.

“As older people, we are more than ever committed to contribute to the further development of a Europe in which everyone has the chance to grow up and grow old with dignity and in caring communities”, states our Vice-President Heidrun Mollenkopf in our press release.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, AGE Platform Europe, the German older people’s organisation – BAGSO, and the German Presidency to the Council of the European Union united their forces and advocacy action. Together, they held a policy conference where decision makers, human rights’ experts, and civil society organisation would debate on how to strengthen older people’s rights in times of digitalisation. A summary of the conference is available on our website.

Taking advantage of the 30th anniversary of the International Day of Older People on 1st October 2020, AGE’s longstanding partners expressed their support for changing the ways we view age and ageing. Together, we:

  • Explained how COVID-19 is compounding inequalities against older persons and what new measures – policies and legal instruments – are needed in a blogpost for Equinet, the European network of equality bodies
  • Recalled the urgent need to redesign empowering, accessible, and inclusive communities in which to grow old in a joint statement with ANEC, the European consumer voice in standardisation, and the European Disability Forum.

by Estelle Huchet

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