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About the human rights of older persons

Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons

A global demographic transformation

Population ageing constitutes one of the most significant demographic transformations of the 21st century.

In 2019, there were 703 million persons aged 65 years or over in the world, or approximately 10 per cent of the global population. It is estimated that by 2050 the number of older persons will double to 1.5 billion so that one in six people in the world will be aged 65 years or over. For the first time in history, humankind will reach a point at which there are fewer children than older persons in the world.

All world regions are experiencing growth in the size and proportion of older persons. Between 2019 and 2050, the share of older persons is projected at least to double in Northern African and Western Asia, Central and Southern Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. Moreover, globally, life expectancy is improving and a person aged 65 years can expect to live an additional 17 years on average.

(Source: World Population Ageing 2019 highlights, ST/ESA/SER.A/430)

Human rights implications of ageing

As the world population continues to age, the human rights dimension of ageing becomes an ever-growing concern. Older persons face a number of particular challenges in the enjoyment of their human rights that need to be addressed urgently. Stereotyping, stigmatization and marginalization is widespread and grounded in assumptions about the lack of ability, frailty and need of protection as individuals grow older. Such ageist attitudes lead to discrimination, exclusion and constrains on the legal capacity, autonomy and independent living of older persons, and aggravate other inequalities. Ageism are stereotypes, prejudice and/or discriminatory actions or practices against older persons that are based on their chronological age or on a perception that the person is “old” (A/HRC/48/53, para 21). 

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified pre-existing human rights violations and had very broad effects on older persons: they have been denied health services; they have been physically and socially isolated; and they have been the victims of ageist attitudes. Despite being such a diverse group, older persons have been labelled as vulnerable and branded as burdens to societies. The pandemic has made very evident the urgent need to combat stigma and age discrimination.

Barriers and structural challenges often emerge for older persons in the context of work, learning opportunities and access to services and resources, because of ageist attitudes, discriminatory laws and policies, underfunding, and lack of accessibility and affordability, among others. This hinders the exercise of other human rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living, especially when adequate and equitable social protection systems are not in place. In the context of health and care provision, dignity and respect for all human rights is key for the well-being of older persons and for the enjoyment of the right to health, including in terms of long-term and palliative care.

These structural challenges can further place older persons at heightened risk of violence, abuse and neglect which is believed to be widespread and can take place in diverse settings and forms. However, it often remains invisible due to a lack of consistent and systematic data collection as well as social perceptions and taboos. Prevention, protection, accountability and remedy mechanisms are not sufficiently developed and accessible to ensure protection and redress.

Human rights of older persons in legal and policy frameworks

Most international and national legislations and policies continue to address ageing from the perspective of welfare and social programs. They do not take a human rights-based approach that views older persons as equal rights holders and not only as beneficiaries of support and assistance.

Only a handful of international human rights mechanisms have devoted attention to older persons, or developed guidance and specific tools for Government and other stakeholders on the promotion and protection of the rights of older persons. The lack of a comprehensive and integrated international legal instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of older persons continues to have significant practical implications in this respect.

Older persons are the most heterogeneous of all age groups and cannot be defined through a single age limit. For human rights purposes, age is not merely a numerical designation. It is a social construct based on custom, practice and the perception of the role a person plays in the community.

It is imperative that legislations and policies ensure the full and meaningful participation of older persons and take into account the tremendous diversity and contributions of older persons to their societies and communities.