Human Rights and the Elderly

 

December is universal human rights month! Why December?  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.  After the end of the Second World War, the international community came together and vowed that such atrocities would not be allowed to happen again.  That’s right, there is such a thing as universal human rights under international law.  That’s the reason I went to law school – to study the international protection of human rights.  The UDHR formed the basis of important political and legal developments internationally and in many regions and individual countries, and spawning two International Covenants – on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Now that I’ve been practicing elder law for many years, referring to the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys’ Aspirational Standards (coincidentally, many internationally recognized human rights are “aspirational” in nature – meaning they are emerging or not fully recognized as rights as such in the legal system), I am seeing more of the broader connections between elder law and human rights.  So, based on that theme, I started looking around a bit more after I saw a reference in the latest query on the rights of elder people in international law.  Thomas Hammarberg, former Council of Europe human rights commissioner recently spoke in Gothenberg, Sweden   about the pressing situation faced by many elders in the European Community.  The number of elders worldwide is burgeoning and coupled with the Great Recession, many are faced with dire circumstances that are a breeding ground for exploitation and degradation.  The “rights of the elderly” is a concept that is both broad and particular at the same time, as it reflects the fact that the challenges and needs facing elders are quite diverse, reflecting a broad range of legal, social, financial, medical, emotional and social implications.

The UDHR, at article 25, para. 1 states

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The rights of the elderly often tend to be a right “to” something (such as security, health care, participation, dignity and nondiscrimination) as opposed to the United States’ historically preferred position to support freedoms “from” on the basis of governmental intrustions.  Of course, elders have well-recognized civil rights in this country to be free from exploitation, abuse, neglect and inhuman treatment.  How will the rights of elders evolve and develop?

Here’s a link to an interesting law review article entitled “International Human Rights and the Elderly,” published in the Marquette’s Elder Advisor and available here.     I also found an interesting abstract of a paper by a member of the law faculty at Montreal’s McGill University titled “The Human Rights of the Elderly: An Emerging Challenge.”     The most interesting aspect of this abstract is the connection made between “ageist” attitudes and discrimination in youth-glorifying and death-denying societies.  I find this connection especially apparent in our culture, which is obsessed with the “doing” aspects of life, and when we are no longer able to “do” as we previously did, we are diminished, worn down, used up and not entitled to the same level of respect as we previously enjoyed.  I think this attitude is not uncommon.  As long as our notions of dignity and respect are linked exclusively to “doing,” the ethics of how we treat people as rights bearing “beings” will be difficult to make coherent.   Included in this conundrum are the rights of the disabled along with those of many elders, whose capacities may be diminishing and are part of a large group of vulnerable persons in need of protection.  I found helpful an overview by the Human Rights Education Association about “The Rights of the Aged,” available here

I couldn’t write this post about the implications of youth-glorification and death-denial in our culture and legal systems without mentioning how our separation from our older, sicker and frailer selves also serves to distance us from the last part of our existence, our life journey  – dying.  Can the dying person and their dear ones reclaim grace and dignity in the process of dying?  Why yes, and thanks to The Soul of Bioethics newsletter I receive from The Healthcare Chaplaincy,    I learned about The Sacred Dying Foundation.    This follows on some familiar themes I have previously blogged about – how our treatment of death and dying informs our values about life. That’s all for now.