‘Lead with us’: championing human rights for all ages starts with involving older people
United Nations meeting on ageing (OEWGA) 2019
The slogan “Nothing about us without us” is embedded in the philosophy and history of the disability rights movement. Disability activists demand control over their lives and a seat at the table when decisions are made. The same stands true for older self-advocates.
While we will soon celebrate the International Day of Older People on 1st October, we seize this opportunity to recall the key principle of participation that lies at the core of a rights-based approach to ageing. On this occasion, we launch the #LeadWithUs initiative, which puts older people at the centre as leaders and changemakers and invites governments to lead the rallying for equal rights in older age with older people.
Why launch #LeadWithUs?
Full and effective participation and inclusion in society is a key objective of human rights law and policy instruments, such as the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA). Yet, the application of these commitments in the context of older age has a narrow scope.
The very depiction of ageing as a problem, and older persons as in need of care elucidates how difficult it is to fully accept older age as an opportunity and participation as a right that should not be compromised in later life.
In the EU Green Paper on Ageing, the European Commission still limits older people’s autonomy and participation in society to “the fullest extent possible” (p. 12) or “as long as it is possible” (p. 16). The right to participate in decision-making processes is usually tied with care settings and does not fully extend to all aspects of life (see for example MIPAA, para 77).
Painting a portrait of older people in poor health or in conditions of poverty may cause sympathy but may undermine the view that they are also deserving equal opportunities to engage in society. The prevalence of this approach was demonstrated during the first wave of the pandemic, when older people were widely portrayed as vulnerable and only three EU countries consulted representatives of older people before imposing targeted measures.
A rhetoric recognising the potential of older people’s contributions coupled with specific commitments to enable participation and belonging in the community are needed to harness our potential and inclusion when we are older.
Older people must be visible as agents of change to share our voices and our experiences. Genuine participation of the people concerned allows for a better understanding of our daily realities and contributes to a transformation process where laws and policies better reflect people’s diverse needs.
Involving older people recognizes our undiminished potential to become allies and partners in the road towards achieving inclusion and equality. Listening to older people acknowledges our equal autonomy and self-determination in older age. It emphasizes that we remain valuable society members as we grow older and supports people’s good health and wellbeing.
When consulted, older people can provide valuable insights to public debates. Older people’s contributions take the form of direct policy and service solutions. Older people’s organisations also regularly advocate on topics as burning as vaccination, residential care, loneliness, digital exclusion, or elder abuse.
The motto ‘Lead With Us’ ignites a vision of shared responsibility and power, moving away from stigma, charity and pity that sometimes forces action in the field of ageing.
With this initiative, we want to help the public and policymakers realize the capacities and rights of older persons to be meaningfully consulted and to drive change. #LeadWithUs is an invitation to reimagine a world for all ages and to inspire a movement for equal rights in old age led by and with older people.
The pursuit of ‘A World For All Ages’ as the objective of the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing is a strong call to shape societies that include and celebrate all age groups. The recent EU Council Conclusions on Mainstreaming Ageing recognize the right to and the access to participation, decision-making and autonomy (para 17) and call for promoting the inclusion of representatives from different age groups at all stages of public decision-making processes (para 49).
Likewise, in the last session of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) in April 2021, we welcomed the high attention given to the need for broad involvement and consultation of all actors, including NGOs and older persons themselves.
We however regret that these commitments are not fully applied in practice. The last OEWG sessions did not involve any older people as panellists. The joint EU position around the OEWG has not been discussed with representative organisations of older persons for several years, while the context since its elaboration has changed dramatically. Very few Member States support the participation of older people in OEWG sessions and hold national consultations to inform their government’s position.
What will we do?
On the International Day of Older People, we will recall that older people have a voice and that this voice should be instrumental in building a world for all ages. The UN debates are equally important to the day-to-day measures that will help us recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
At all ages, in all places, there should be no compromise in our commitment to human rights.
The OEWG process is a concrete opportunity for the EU and its Member States to demonstrate their commitments in practice by:
- Consulting with older people in preparation of the OEWG sessions
- Helping civil society to attend the OEWG sessions, for instance by inviting them to join the national delegation of your government and supporting with travelling expenses
- Suggesting older people’s representatives as speakers in discussion panels
- Actively participating in all panels of the OEWG session
- Calling for a meeting of the EU Council Working Group on Human Rights (COHOM) to discuss EU’s position at the OEWG in consultation with representative organisations of older persons at EU level
Our initiative is not only an appeal to governments to genuinely engage with older people for policy making. It is also a call to older people at large to join the movement for human rights in older age.