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Opinion Ageism is far too prevalent, we need a cultural shift in how older people are perceived

Older adults are too often seen as ‘burden’ rather than people who helped build societies and economies.

FOR THE NEXT three days at the United Nations (UN) in New York, human rights and older people are being discussed. This is the fifth session of the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWGA) set up in 2010 to strengthen the protection of the rights of older people, and one of the outcomes of its deliberations could be a new international Convention on the Rights of Older People.

The issues to be discussed this week include the care of older people, violence and abuse against older people and planning for end of life care.

The need for a Convention

The human rights of older people have been somewhat neglected in international human rights law. While many international human rights instruments are universal by nature, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), older people are rarely specifically mentioned, in the Covenants themselves or in the commentary or recommendations made by the Committees established to monitor compliance with the Covenants.

International human rights law does not articulate or explain, for example, protection from elder abuse or support for older people in care settings in the same way the Convention on the Rights of the Child deals with the specificity of issues that children face, such as child protection and adoption.

It is clear there are gaps in protections available to older people in our existing human rights infrastructure. This surely does not make sense given the projections for global ageing populations. By 2030, 16% or 1,375 million of the total global population will be over 60 years old (currently it is 11% or 809 million) and for the first time ever there will be more people over 60 than children under 10. This means that the number of people whose rights may be violated, without adequate protections is increasing at a rapid pace.

We need a common minimum standard set of rights for older people that governments can sign up to. These would not necessarily be new rights, but the articulation of how each human right specifically applies to older people and what measures governments must take to comply with it.

A new Convention would provide a welcome cultural shift in how older people in Ireland and globally are perceived. Ageism is too prevalent. Older adults are often seen as a burden rather than the bearers of rights who have helped build the infrastructure of their respective societies and economies, and continue to contribute even when they are no longer in employment.

A new Convention would help increase the visibility of older people and move towards older people being viewed as rights holders rather than recipients of charity or welfare.


Ireland will be represented at the meeting but has up until now not been supportive of a new Convention and has rowed in behind the EU’s position, also not in favour of new legally binding instrument.

However in the last year Slovenia came out in support of a Convention so it will be interesting to see the nuance in the EU position at the meeting this year.

It is important that Ireland and the EU continue to support the OEWGA process at least. We in Age Action are calling on them to support the drafting of a new Convention. The negotiation and drafting process for human rights Conventions at the UN is very lengthy and it is not uncommon to take a decade or longer so we will have to be patient.

The lived experience of older people 

Getting the lived experience of older people here in Ireland and globally reflected in a Convention will also be hugely important. Meaningful consultations with older people on how they perceive their rights will need to take place, as well as participation by older people in the negotiation process as happened with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Once the Convention is negotiated the work in a sense will have only begun. We will then need to ensure that Ireland ratifies it and the rights it contains are fully realised for older people on the ground.

Lianne Murphy is Development Officer in Age Action’s Ageing & Development Programme.

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