Human Rights: A New Language for Aging Advocacy

Chapter 41

Human Rights: A New Language for Aging Advocacy

Russell E. Morgan, Jr. and Sam David

Growing older should not be a disability in itself. But for many, it entails a struggle to maintain a decent standard of living.

The high costs of health care and the frequent bias against seniors in the work-place contribute to the difficulties of those approaching advanced age. As the United States experiences population aging—the steep rise in number of seniors, as well as their proportion of the total population—the problem may indeed worsen. Aging baby boomers, medical advances, and declining birth rates are swelling the number of seniors, thus increasing how many people will encounter these struggles.

Advocates for aging adults need a convincing argument that will establish broad political support for maintaining a high quality of life for all seniors throughout their lives. The platform for establishing these values, too much ignored thus far, is human rights (a concept that is understandable to those of all ages and for which they can also be passionate). Educating the general population about the universality of human rights concepts and their direct relevance to the most important policy issues impacting seniors can inspire public support for all segments of the population. Advocates could then use the newfound support and perhaps activism in lobbying for changes that would help the elderly population, while helping humanity in general.

Why Human Rights?

Like women or members of racial or ethnic minorities, the aging too are part of a unique minority, a minority that cuts across all other social divisions because we all eventually join it. And there are inherent difficulties that accompany the process of aging. The question becomes one of how to address the inevitable quality-of-life issues with concrete results.

Human rights principles, emerging into an international movement half a century ago, have evolved into a political force. Various treaties spell out standards and rights both for certain segments of the population and for everyone. But these documents are not well known by most of the U.S. population. For example, a 1997 poll commissioned by the National Center for Human Rights Education, in Atlanta, Georgia, showed that 92% of the American public has never heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), written in 1948 (National Center for Human Rights Education, 2001). Ironically, this was developed by a committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt and adopted by the United Nations on December 10th of that year. Although the human rights standards that the UDHR lays out, and which are enforced through the various human rights treaties, have not been fully recognized in the United States, they establish a basic foundation for supporting moral values for all societies.

Using human rights standards to advocate for seniors would characterize their needs within a framework that includes all other social and age groups. The right to health care, for example, applies to everyone, regardless of age or social status. Advocating for seniors’ rights to accessible and universally affordable health care is thus an argument for good health care for all. If advocates for seniors depict the pursuit of health care for elders as a broader struggle (i.e., a struggle for our entire society, which is based on human rights and the fundamental values they establish), they would likely command wide, inter-generational support.

But convincing those who formulate aging-related policies to consciously recognize and respect the collective rights of seniors is crucial. And the means to that end lies in educating the general public about the rights of all citizens. If the majority of American people knew and understood that a healthy 80-year-old may be capable of working at the same level as his 40-year-old counterpart but won’t earn as much, or that a 75-year-old’s medicine for her age-related illness may cost her three times as much as her daughter’s chronic illness drugs, then a typical policy maker might respond to the louder and more pervasive outcry for help. This education must include bringing about public awareness of the values incorporated in the UDHR (1948)—an understanding that will help Americans to digest the incontrovertible truth that all people are entitled to human rights, no matter who they are or where they live.

The concept of human rights has recently been catapulted into the forefront of American minds, as the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath keep the country saturated with media coverage of rights abuses. The horrors in various areas of the world have never gone away, but citizens are now more attuned to and informed of the realities that lie beyond their immediate vision. The inequities in the United States that result from national policies that treat young and old people differently create a significant issue of human rights as well and merit the attention of those of all ages. Why should a person lose the high quality of health care received 30 years earlier, and why should anyone encounter obstacles upon trying to learn the new skills required for his or her career?

There is potential public support: In a poll sponsored by the National Center for Human Rights Education (2001), Peter Hart found that 54% of Americans believe elderly people need support through government programs to maintain a basic standard of living. The Center aptly states that “our compassion for those in need is greater than our understanding about how to use human rights to end their suffering.” That lack of understanding must be remedied.

The Human Rights Framework

What are internationally recognized human rights and how do they pertain to seniors? Human rights standards are enshrined in a variety of international treaties and covenants, which are legally binding upon those nations that ratify them. Other documents and declarations also specify such rights, but are without the force of law behind them. They nevertheless represent a moral consensus of the international community.

Three documents comprise the International Bill of Rights: (a) UDHR (1948), (b) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR; 1966), and (c) the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR; 1966). The ICESCR (1966) enunciates rights to work (Article 6) and to just and favorable working conditions that provide workers with “a decent living for themselves and their families” (Article 7). Article 9 attests to a right to Social Security—essential for those in retirement and to those in need of long-term assistance. The right to “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” is enunciated (Article 12), while recognizing limitations imposed by biological and socioeconomic preconditions and the government’s available resources.

Three other human rights documents pertinent to seniors are (a) the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW; 1979), (b) the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD; 1993) and (c) the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT; 1984).

CEDAW (1979) and CERD (1993) make clear the obligation of governments to work toward abolishing all gender and race discrimination. They offer a sweeping definition of discrimination, clarifying that policies and practices that have an unjustifiably disparate gender- or race-based impact may constitute discrimination, even if the result was unintended. This understanding of discrimination is important for seniors, because gender and race are often relevant in examining the causes of preexisting inequalities in areas such as income and health care (Muller, 1999).

The ICCPR (1966), part of the International Bill of Rights, establishes a right to freedom from “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 7). These injustices are understood in CAT (1984) to be acts “committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity” (Article 16[1]). Although the meanings of these terms remain the subject of some debate, the prohibition against abusive treatment could be used to argue for more protection for seniors in nursing homes and facilities. As many of these homes are government funded, the residents—vulnerable because of a reliance on others for their care—could benefit from effective advocacy based on the stated prohibitions.

Seniors’ advocates must also be aware of the United Nations (U.N.) Principles for Older Persons (1991). Although the guidelines therein do not have the legal force of the international human rights treaties, they are drawn directly from the principles established in the International Bill of Rights. Central to the U.N. Principles are the standards of independence, participation, care, self-fulfillment, and dignity for seniors, to be incorporated into government programs whenever possible.

The fundamental rights enunciated in the international treaties and their further exploration in the U.N. Principles for Older Persons (1991) provide the foundation for seniors’ advocates to formulate their issues as society-wide human rights concerns. The United States, however, has not yet agreed to abide by all the treaties. It has signed and ratified the ICCPR (1966), CERD (1993), and CAT (1984), obliging the nation to meet those treaties’ standards and to report on compliance with them to the relevant U.N. treaty bodies. But neither the ICESCR (1966) nor the CEDAW (1979) has been ratified by the United States. Unfounded congressional fears and arrogance may well play a part in this shameful disregard, but advocates must go beyond those politicians determined to keep the treaties off their senatorial desks. It must be articulated also to the public that there are core values shared by most Americans, and it is in the best interest of each citizen to stand up for the rights of others—strangers or not.

Thus, instead of focusing only on the unfortunate U.S. legal status of these two human rights accords, advocates should emphasize the accords’ moral power and organizing potential. The ICESCR (1966) and CEDAW (1979) are the outcome of extensive consideration of economic, social, cultural, and gender-based issues, and represent wide agreement in the international community: 142 countries are a party to the ICESCR and 165 to CEDAW (United Nations, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2000). Used carefully yet assertively by seniors’ advocates, these agreements can become a mobilizing tool that enhances the movement to protect seniors—and all other members of society as well.

Applying Human Rights Standards to Seniors’ Issues

Four key areas in the lives of seniors exemplify how the integration of human rights values could improve the creation of public policies, federal and state, that address the needs of the growing senior population in communities across America: (a) work, (b) retirement security, (c) health care, and (d) long-term care.

The Workplace

Jeff is in his 60s and lost his high-level marketing job a decade ago. His difficulty finding a new job is typical for seniors: the years of experience didn’t matter, once employers noticed his age. Some employers even admitted that his age led them not to hire him. He started his own business, earning a decent living although it was itself a demotion: he went from the upper $80,000s to the upper $30,000s. “I enjoy my work. I’ve stayed on the cutting edge of technology and computers and get a great deal of enjoyment from it; there is still software I would like to create and market,” he says.

Jeff is entitled to the same just and favorable working conditions that are easily accepted and expected by those in other minority groups. But age-based discrimination is unfortunately not unusual.

Although mandatory retirement is less of a problem now than in previous years because of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967), the issue of age discrimination in hiring and firing decisions has not improved to the same degree. The ability of seniors to realize equality in the workplace has been hurt by their limited access to training and employers’ negative views of older workers. Stereotypes continue to convince many employers that older workers are inflexible and not easily adaptable to new technologies (Rix, 1999).