The Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. This equality does not change with age: older men and women have the same rights as people younger than themselves.
The rights of older people are embedded in international human rights conventions on economic, social, civil and political rights, yet are not made specific.
Our rights do not change as we grow older. What does change is that older women and men are considered to be inherently less valuable to society. At the same time, as people get older, they face increasing barriers to their participation, become more dependent on others and lose some or all of their personal autonomy. These threats to their dignity can make them more susceptible to neglect, abuse and violation of their rights.
Age discrimination and ageism are tolerated across the world. Older women and men experience violations of their rights at family, community and institutional levels.
Older people face very specific threats to their rights in relation to age discrimination, for example, in access to health care, in employment, in property and inheritance rights, in access to information and education and in humanitarian responses. Older people also face particular forms of violence and abuse. They face particular threats to their rights in care settings and as carers themselves.
Demographic ageing is creating new challenges such as protecting the rights of people living with dementia, of older detainees, and the equitable allocation of resources in health care. Older people’s rights to access to justice, equality before the law and the rights to housing, privacy and a private life all require greater attention.
Age discrimination is when someone is treated differently, with an unreasonable or disproportionate impact, simply because of their age. It is a violation of older people’s rights. Age discrimination can be direct, for example, upper age limits on credit or micro-finance that prohibit older people accessing finance, or indirect, such as not collecting data on HIV infection in women and men over 49. This failure to collect data results in the exclusion of older people from HIV and AIDS prevention programmes, and, therefore, discriminates against them.
Ageism is the stereotyping and prejudice against older people that can lead to age discrimination. At one end of the scale ageism may seem harmless, for example, when older people are patronised on TV, in films and in advertising. However, research by Yale University showed that negative stereotypes of older people in the US had a harmful impact on older people’s memory, balance and even how long they lived for . At the other extreme, older people, especially women, can be accused of witchcraft because of age and gender stereotypes and then forced out of their homes or even murdered.
Multiple discrimination: The discrimination that older men and women face is also complex, often based on two or more factors, such as age and gender, ethnic origin, where they live, disability, poverty, sexuality, HIV status or literacy levels. Older women are particularly vulnerable to discrimination based on both age and gender. The impact of gender-based discrimination against girls and younger women is carried into old age and unless addressed continues from one generation to another.