Last 28-29 September, as part of the German Presidency of the European Union, we co-organised a high-level international online conference on older persons’ rights in a digitalized society, with a particular focus on the issues of autonomy and participation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on older persons, as they are the population group that is the most affected by the virus. A spotlight that made more blatant than ever the inequalities experienced by this rapidly growing part of the EU population in many areas. Digitalisation is not the least of them.
If the increased use of digital tools the last few months has shown the opportunities offered by digitalisation, it has also made the digital divide more visible and revealed how it challenges our right of participation and self-determination in older age.
Civil society and governments together around the table
‘Strengthening Older People’s Rights in Times of Digitalisation – Lessons learned from COVID-19’ was the topic of the online international conference we organised last 28-29 September, jointly with the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, and our member organisation in Germany, the German National Association of Senior Citizens’ Organisations – BAGSO. The event, which were followed by about 2500 participants from 60 countries, involved high-ranking EU and UN officials and Member States as well as civil society representatives.
“This conference provides a forum for debate that we believe has long been necessary; digitalisation carries many opportunities but it cannot go without better protections for our human rights” – AGE President Ebbe Johansen
A consensus among participants made clear that the digitalisation of our European societies must take everyone on board, making the issues of diversity, accessibility and digital literacy a priority that should mobilize all – international, national and local – levels.
“Age in itself is no barrier to the use of technology(…). Once size fits all solutions are destined to fail” – Helena Dalli, EU Commissioner for Equality
The discussions highlighted in particular the importance of digital inclusion to maintain people’s autonomy and self-determination in older age. It also addressed the cross-generational dimension of digital challenges and the need for life-cycle policies and stronger intergenerational interaction and solidarity to address them. The question of loneliness in old age and the importance of maintaining “physical” offline interactions was also raised on several occasions by speakers.
Strengthening autonomy & participation through rights-based policy
“We need to clarify the place of older persons and their rights in a growing digitalized society” – Dubravka Šuica, EU Commission Vice-President for Democracy & Demography
Many of the challenges that older people face in the context of digitalisation reflect more general societal problems that are prevalent “offline”, including ageism, diminished respect for the autonomy of older persons and a lack of consultation. This is why speakers also agreed on the need to strengthen older persons’ rights and to integrate a rights-based approach to ageing policies. This includes applying all the rights that the EU and its Member States are committed to working with older people to find solutions; respecting the principle of equality and non-discrimination and gathering data to capture the realities of older persons.
Several participants spoke also about the need for the EU to engage with UN processes to secure equal rights in old age. The conclusions of this conference will feed into the global debate on how to strengthen the protection of our human rights when we are older in the frame of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing.
EU Council address rights in older age
This conference was the occasion for the German EU Presidency to present the draft Council of the EU’s Conclusions on ‘Human Rights, Participation & Well-Being of Older Persons in the Era of Digitalisation that would be adopted on 9 October by national ministers (read the final Council Conclusions here).
For the first time in a decade, Council Conclusions focus on older persons. In a joint press release together with our German member organisation, BAGSO, we welcome the Council Conclusions and call on the German EU Council Presidency for their swift implementation.