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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Promoting Aging Activism to Assure the Rights of Older Persons

International Day of Older Persons
Workshop: Promoting Aging Activism to Assure the Rights of Older Persons 2009

Susanne Paul, Global Action on Aging President, chaired an afternoon workshop focused on human rights of older persons on the International Day of Older Persons at the United Nations. Participants included Nora Berra, French Minister for Older Persons; Javier Vasquez, Human Rights Law Advisor for the Pan American Health Organization; Maria Luz Melon, First Secretary of the Permanent Mission of Argentina to the United Nations, and Alexandre Kalache, Global Ambassador, HelpAge International.

Nora Berra, French Minister for Older Persons

Nora Berra opened with the following statement: "We wish to attach roles and rights to older persons. Our presence here is an example of our efforts to deliver a universal message." With that, she emphasized "equality, liberty and fraternity," and discussed the implementation of the 2002 Madrid Plan of Action in France. She explained France's "social integration, care and consideration, education, labor market, social services and other life issues for older persons." France recognizes such rights because the government is committed to excluding no one based on age, gender or income. Mme.

Berra called for a global approach to respond to the worldwide increase in life expectancy, using the current figure of 600 million people over the age 60 as the basis of her argument. We "must consider life expectancy as an achievement over time, [especially as] it allows individuals to live more and bear witness to what is changing in the world." Overall, however, she asserted that we "need a better strategy for integration of older persons." "They are a pillar on which French society resides; they relate to their children and grandchildren and serve as a vehicle of transmission of values," she stated, and as a result, "the perspective about older persons has been changing in France." She explained that older persons participate in a range of activities and "commit to society on a voluntary basis; [in addition,] they create an enormous source of wealth in the business community and provide training and tutoring."

Berra asserted support for the Madrid Plan in June 2009 along with the World Health Organization, resulting in positively reinforcing the image of older persons in French Society. She concluded that "each older person benefits from services tailored to their needs and [thus,] France promotes older persons living at home as long as possible, [only to be moved when] keeping a person home is no longer possible and there is therefore a need for an intermediary system." On the topic of home care, she additionally discussed the Alzheimers' condition that currently affects 1.6 billion individuals, and the need to provide a master plan to pay for costs of such needy individuals-a situation which France will address in a seminar in 2010 or 2011. Last, she concluded with the simple, yet enduring statement that "older persons deserve our common reflection worldwide"-a statement that set the stage for the speakers who followed.

Maria Luz Melon, First Secretary of the Permanent Mission of Argentina to the United Nations Maria Luz Melon, spoke on behalf of Dr. Luciano Di Hector Cesare, who was unable to attend the workshop. She opened her speech with the statement that in Argentina, there were no specialized medical policies or interventions for older persons in 1971 and thus, Heads of State expressed commitment to securing them. She stated that age discrimination is a basic violation of human rights and with this in mind, we need new models to integrate older persons, not only recognizing them as a group, but also as an integral part of society. She posed the question, "We can say older persons are integrated now, but are older persons treated equally?" She responded by saying that Argentina needs to address this issue in a comprehensive manner. "Member States cannot succeed in isolation, and we need to devote more resources [such as] those of civil society and academia, to assure national and international accountability and monitoring." She said that Argentina supports a convention that enumerates the rights of older persons to become part of obligatory and binding laws in governments. She concluded that society needs a different and positive change on elder rights because it current situation is a "global problem that needs a certain dialogue and [thus,] we need to change the way we think."

Javier Vasquez, Human Rights Law Advisor for the Pan American Health Organization

Javier Vasquez opened his presentation with questions for the audience. "Why a new convention?" he posed. He continued, "Why a new treaty?" His answers set the foundation for his arguments. "Very few countries have implemented fundamental rights and freedoms of older persons. We need to protect their rights, decision-making process, healthcare and financial choices. There are gross violations of basic human rights and many countries, laws, policies and plans are not protecting older persons against abandonment, discrimination and abuse." He asked, "What are some rights that need to be protected?" He referred to simple necessities such as water, food and essential medicines, explaining that older persons often face physical barriers. He added that "older persons do not have contact with community at large due to age." Thus, we "need clear procedures and mechanisms [that] give older persons the possibilities of making decisions-procedures that have not [yet] been established by law."

Vasquez then asked the audience the following rhetorical question. "We do not see older persons claiming rights and advocating because how can they be a voice when they are involuntarily pent up?" Vasquez then continued with examples of abuse against older persons. "Older persons have the right to live and we need to be their voice," Vasquez said. "They need to be free from physical, mental, financial and emotional abuse in order to prolong their life. Some examples [of such abuse] include [when older persons are forced] to eat meals, tied to beds, [placed in] physical positions that make wounds and injuries worse, and [issued] threats of abandonment. These actions can provoke more problems when taking into account the physical, mental and emotional vulnerability [of older persons]." Thus, we "need to examine the biological and social aspect of aging."

Vasquez claimed that "access to information is crucial for older persons to make decisions, but this is not always available and [therefore,] we need an International convention to make clear mechanisms and procedures with in a legal framework. He also spoke of long-term care stating that "none of these rights will be enjoyed if the government does not adopt clear measures that take care of terminal illness and preventative pain." He added that we "need mechanisms in long-term care and the adoption of international policies in social security, education, recreation and work." With the prospect of international cooperation in mind, he concluded that "the inter-American agency is committed to the implementation of international measures [and that] an international convention is a great opportunity for NGOs and governments to explore specific standards in the rights of olderpersons."

Alexandre Kalache, Global Ambassador, HelpAge International

Using a Powerpoint presentation as his guide, Alexandre Kalache discussed the "social exclusion" of older persons that constitutes a "human indignity." He also talked about "symbolic exclusion," and explained that many older persons are "left behind" as a result. He mainly addressed the following forms of exclusion that impact old people: institutional exclusion, socio-economic exclusion, territorial exclusion, identity exclusion, social capital exclusion and socio-political exclusion-which, collectively, leave older people disempowered and unable to neither exercise their rights nor fully express their unique personas. He pointed out that nations need to address these exclusions and solidify elderly rights as an integral part of society in order to promote "inclusion"-which would "ensure that everyone has the right to appreciate the treasure of life."

He did not merely use words, however, as support for his argument. His powerpoint pictures explained what he was trying to convey. For example, he showed a picture of his mother, Lourdes, at her 90th birthday party and reported that she has had a privileged life with the best of the best and thus, was included in society"-which now allows her to enjoy the "treasure of life." In contrast, he explained that his Nanny from childhood, with whom he has lost contact and only up until recently has found, did not share the same fortune as his mother; she currently lives in poor health and serves as an example of a person much affected by the aforementioned "exclusions" as she now lives an impoverished life alone and in a foreign land with which she has few attachments. He explained that due to society's lack of enforced elderly rights, she now suffers in her old age as a result of a life spent trying to stay afloat-a common phenomenon that affects many and, without the implementation of elder rights, will continue to do so.

The closing remarks focused on the necessity to promote advocacy for the fundamental rights of older persons.

Question-and-Answer Session

The speakers responded to inquiries and statements from the audience, such as questions about the reasons for the need of a convention, the reasons behind lack of pro-convention efforts from urban countries and the address of HIV and older persons.

Jean-Pierre Gonnot, Acting Director of the Social Integration Branch, Division for Social Policy and Development in the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) Jean-Pierre Gonnot, Acting Director of the Social Integration Branch, Division for Social Policy and Development in the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), concluded with brief remarks drawn from his experience staffing sessions leading to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Gonnot explained that although older persons are largely invisible due to the fact that their fate is not consider a priority and, therefore, ageing has not gained much traction on the development agenda in many countries. Consequently, many Member States don't see the point in having a convention which raises many concerns, one of which is its financial implications. He continued, stating that the first step toward a convention is making the development case for a convention, e.g. that MDG1 cannot be achieved without addressing the needs of older persons, followed by laying out the human rights case which includes establishing the technical statements to be put into the convention itself. Taken together, these arguments provide a basis for beginning work on a convention for older persons. Gonnot also noted that older persons can exercise their rights under the Disability Convention's provisions when it comes to the rights violations that they typically face such as the right to health and freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse.

By Veronica Lewis, Global Action on Aging


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