Rights of Older Persons must be fulfilled!

senior citizens elderly

On 1 October, the world will once again observe the ‘International Day of Older Persons’. It is the 33rd commemoration of this United Nations Day. Such days are often relegated to tokenism and cosmetic exercises filled with a plethora of speeches and feel- good activities. The theme ‘Fulfilling the Promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for Older Persons: Across Generations,’ however, is a challenging one- which gives little room for the normal complacency or for a mere celebration of ‘yet another UN Day!’

For this particular day the UN website states, “Seventy-five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, a monumental document in the history of human rights. Written by representatives from around the world with different legal, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, it is the first document articulating the fundamental human rights that are meant to be universally protected.  In recognition of this milestone, and looking to a future that delivers on the promise to ensure that all persons, including all older persons, fully enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms, the 33rd commemoration of the United Nations International Day of Older Persons will focus on the theme of ‘Fulfilling the Promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for Older Persons: Across Generations.’. The event will put a spotlight on the specificity of older persons around the world, for the enjoyment of their rights and in addressing violations, and how the strengthening of solidarity through equity and reciprocity between generations offers sustainable solutions to deliver on the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

“The work of the International Community around intergenerational solidarity has demonstrated, time and again, through various fora that intergenerational solutions, which are guided by the human rights principles of participation, accountability, non-discrimination and equality, empowerment and legality, can contribute to rekindle the legacy, relevance and activism of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by empowering both youth and older persons to shift the needle of political will towards fulfilling the promises of the Declaration for all people across generations. 

In order to realise the UNIDOP 2023 mission and mandate, there are clear objectives:

  • to increase global knowledge and awareness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and generate commitments among all stakeholders to strengthen the protection of the human rights of current and future generations of older persons around the world;
  • to share and learn from intergenerational models for the protection of human rights around the world; and
  • to call on Governments and UN entities to review their current practices with a view to better integrate a life course approach to human rights in their work, and to ensure the active and meaningful participation of all stakeholders, including civil society, national human rights institutions and older persons themselves, in the work on strengthening solidarity among generations and intergenerational partnerships.

Whether the above will be actualised in the near or distant future is anyone’s guess? Senior Citizens in India are certainly at receiving end of a society, which is becoming more and more insensitive!  One looks back at the times when older persons were respected and even venerated, accepted and wanted. The typical family, in the rural and urban areas, was a place where everyone from the youngest to the oldest belonged.

‘Times have changed!’ is a cliché one hears ad nauseam. One however, will not be able to dispute it where the status of older persons is concerned today. There are several indicators to highlight the fact, that in many families today, older persons are considered more of a burden than a blessing. The family as the basic cell of society has undergone a dramatic change; married couples decide not have a child, or just one child or at most two –children. In many cases, both husband and wife pursue careers, which came them out of the home for long hours. Then with the rapid strides in technology – the gizmos take centre-stage either for work or pleasure or just as ‘time pass’! There is a tremendous decline in interactions within the family! For many older persons, it is often sheer loneliness, being at home for long hours without having anyone to relate to. Society overall is not very older persons- friendly! There is a lack of facilities and infrastructure that are necessary for senior citizens be it parks or libraries and even safe spots to cross to the other side of the road.

In a society, which is characterised by its ‘throw-away culture’, older persons are conveniently discarded. There are several instances when even their own children throw the elderly out of the house. Others prefer to ‘dump’ the elderly in homes for the aged / senior citizens because they now live abroad. They do pay for their upkeep and make that weekly call; but that is certainly not the same as having one’s parents live with you! In his message for the ‘Day of the Elderly’ (22 July) of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis makes a heartfelt appeal to the young, saying, “I would invite you to make a concrete gesture that would include grandparents and the elderly. Let us not abandon them. Their presence in families and communities is a precious one, for it reminds us that we share the same heritage and are part of a people committed to preserving its roots. From the elderly we received the gift of belonging to God’s holy people. The Church, as well as society, needs them, for they entrust to the present the past that is needed to build the future. Let us honour them, neither depriving ourselves of their company nor depriving them of ours. May we never allow the elderly to be cast aside!”

The number of older people (defined as those aged 65 years or older) tripled from around 260 million in 1980 to 761 million in 2021. Between 2021 and 2050, the global share of the older population is projected to increase from less than 10% to around 17%.. Rapid growth in the number of people reaching older ages, particularly in India, underscores the significance of promoting health, preventing, and treating illnesses throughout the entire course of life.

In societies with aging populations, like India, it becomes imperative to adjust to the increasing number of elderly individuals who possess a diverse range of functional capacities. The capability to carry out essential functions and partake in everyday activities is influenced not solely by an individual’s inherent capacity but also by the social and physical environments in which they reside. Supportive environments play a pivotal role in assisting older individuals to maintain their activity levels and independence as they progress in age.

The question one needs to ask oneself is whether individually and collectively, we are  willing to act now and ensure the human rights of older persons  everywhere – particularly those who belong to the poorer and more vulnerable sections of society. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres puts it poignantly “Older persons are invaluable sources of knowledge and experience and have much to contribute towards peace, sustainable development, and protecting our planet.”

The point is, are we listening? Do we care?

(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: [email protected] )

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