Edith Francisco, a fellow church member, greeted World War II veteran Lawrence Brooks as he celebrated his 110th birthday at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Brooks was born Sept. 12, 1909, and served in the predominantly African American 91st Engineer Battalion, which was stationed in New Guinea and then the Philippines during World War II. Lawrence Brooks passed on Jan. 5, 2022, he lived to age 112. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The world’s growing population of older people need to be recognized, and their needs must be better addressed, said Fabián Oddone, Argentina’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, at the U.N.’s 33rd International Day of Older Persons (UNIDOP) on Oct. 2.

The day’s events were centered around the theme of “Fulfilling the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for Older Persons: Across Generations.”

Argentina currently chairs the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG), the only U.N. organization created to explicitly deal with protecting the rights of older people. The OEWG has been meeting for the past 13 years to work on issues like ageism; age discrimination; violence, abuse, and neglect against older persons; social protections and social security; long-term care and palliative care; autonomy; independent living; access to healthcare; lifelong learning; and the rights to employment.

“The current international legal framework provides a fragmented and inconsistent coverage of the human rights of older persons in law and practice,” Oddone said. “Hence, Argentina is convinced that it’s necessary to move towards an international, legally binding instrument to fully protect their human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Argentina is one of many nations now pushing for an international agreement regarding older people’s rights. Several ageist comments that blamed older people for nationwide lockdowns during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic have put more fervor behind the idea for such an agreement.

The world’s population of people over age 60 is expected to reach 2.1 billion by the year 2050, the World Health Organization says. In countries like Brazil, the “population pyramid is transitioning,” one representative said. By the year 2060, one third of Brazil’s population is expected to be 60 years or older. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that “By 2060, nearly one in four Americans will be 65 years and older, the number of 85-plus will triple, and the country will add a half million centenarians. … If the trends continue, the U.S. is fast heading towards a demographic first. It will become grayer than ever before as older adults outnumber kids.”

“Seventy-five years ago, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, one in 20 people in the world, or around 128 million people, were aged 65 years or older,” Volker Türk, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights said in a taped message played at the conference. “By 2050, it is projected that those over 65 will number 1.6 billion people. In other words, one in six people on this planet will be an older person.

“The fact that we are living a longer life is [an] immense cause for celebration: older persons and their leadership, knowledge and experience are essential to inclusive and sustainable societies and to decision making and governance that is informed by the past. While looking to the future now, at the same time, laws and policies need to be adopted to meet the needs and respond to the challenges of aging populations. This means strengthening and investing in social protection systems in healthcare and community-based services. As we saw particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of us, across generations, need to work together to address ageism and age discrimination, which remains—unfortunately––pervasive.”

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres also sent a commemorative message to the conference, pointing out that “Ageism is rampant in societies, from the COVID-19 pandemic to poverty and climate emergencies. Older persons are often among the first victims of crises. Addressing these and other issues is a human rights imperative that will benefit everyone.”

The Bahá’í International Community’s U.N. representative, Liliane Nkunzimana, spoke about the differences between older and younger generations and the ways they can recognize one another’s importance. “Young people today are coming of age in the midst of deeply unsettled transitions: much that was assumed to be certain and settled is now being questioned, and there’s widespread acknowledgement that present day structures are often ill prepared to address the needs of the future.” Bridging the gaps between youth culture and older people is vital, Nkunzimana said.

“This occasion is a moment for all of us––across generations––to consult and strategize on how to salvage a culture of trust amongst rising generations; to think about how to commit to finding more refined and enduring approaches to human rights that focus on building consensus and mutual understanding,” she added.

Stephanie Firestone, who leads AARP’s global Equity by Design initiative, spoke about how older people are not always secure in their housing. And, often, even if they remain housed, their homes are not outfitted to support them. “The environment that we live in directly impacts our level of functioning and our well-being,” Firestone said. “If it’s overly demanding, people struggle. And if it’s under-demanding, people don’t have opportunities to function within their abilities, which then often atrophy. This costs individuals and it also costs society because of the need for supportive services to bridge those gaps.”

Dr. Ernest Gonzales, New York University’s James Weldon Johnson Professor of Social Work and director of the Center for Health and Aging Innovation (CHAI), told the conference that paying attention to the way people age and the ways they maintain their societal bonds will be fundamental if we want to promote healthy aging. Most countries have not established policies tailored toward older people, he added, and there aren’t many laws guaranteeing them a right to civic engagement, to non-discrimination, or to the ability to both be supportive caregivers and potentially receive caregiving as they themselves age. “May I even dare say how do we live a long, loving life in community?” said Dr. Gonzales. “That is the question before us today. That is the challenge for us in the 21st century.”

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