Population ageing is a profound demographic shift that is reshaping societies worldwide. In 2019, there were approximately 703mn individuals aged 65 or older, constituting about 10% of the global population. Projections indicate that by 2050, this number will double to 1.5bn, meaning one in six people on the planet will be a senior citizen. This transformation marks a historic turning point where the elderly will outnumber children for the first time in history.
The implications of this global ageing phenomenon extend far beyond demographic statistics. The human rights dimension of ageing is an increasingly pressing concern. Older persons face unique challenges in the realization of their human rights, and addressing these issues is an urgent priority.
Ageism and Its Consequences
Stereotyping, stigmatization, and marginalization of older individuals are pervasive and deeply rooted in assumptions about their frailty and perceived need for protection as they age. These ageist attitudes lead to discrimination, exclusion, and constraints on the legal capacity, autonomy, and independent living of older persons, exacerbating existing inequalities. Ageism encompasses stereotypes, prejudice, and discriminatory actions or practices based on a person's age or a perception that they are "old."
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified these pre-existing human rights violations. Older individuals have faced denial of health services, social isolation, and ageist attitudes during the crisis. Despite the diversity within this group, older persons have often been labeled as vulnerable and burdens on society. The pandemic has underscored the imperative to combat stigma and age discrimination.
Structural Challenges and Barriers
Structural challenges emerge for older persons in various domains, such as employment, learning opportunities, and access to services and resources. Ageist attitudes, discriminatory laws, underfunding, and a lack of accessibility and affordability hinder the exercise of their human rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living. This is particularly evident when equitable social protection systems are absent.
In the context of health and care provision, respecting human dignity and all human rights is crucial for the well-being of older persons and the realization of the right to health, including long-term and palliative care.
These structural challenges also place older persons at a heightened risk of violence, abuse, and neglect, which are believed to be widespread but often remain invisible due to inconsistent data collection and societal perceptions. The lack of well-developed prevention, protection, accountability, and remedy mechanisms further hampers their protection and redress.
Human Rights Frameworks and Ageing
Many international and national legislations and policies approach ageing primarily from a welfare and social program perspective, rather than adopting a human rights-based approach that recognizes older persons as equal rights holders. While some international human rights mechanisms have addressed older persons and developed guidance and tools for their protection, a comprehensive and integrated international legal instrument to safeguard the rights and dignity of older persons remains lacking.
Older persons represent a diverse group that defies a single age limit. Age is not just a numerical designation; it is a social construct shaped by customs, practices, and the roles individuals play in their communities.