‘Get up, stand up for your rights’: a call for an Older Peoples’ Commissioner. A blog for United Nations Day.

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. At different stages of our life we probably most of us need heroes. For some they will be the celluloid stars of imagination, sporting greats or fashion and style icons. For many they are the famous and extraordinary, the remarkable and amazing. Our heroes will doubtless change over time but at the risk of exaggeration most of us need a few heroes in our hearts. They are the people who inspire and motivate us, who are exemplars of something we admire and whose lives push us to be someone we want to be. Regular readers of this blog will probably have guessed that most of my heroes are individuals who are not well known, many of them folks I have met along the way, but all of them people whose compassion and care, humanity and sensitivity have made them for me heroes of our humanity. That’s why during the first wave of the pandemic I spoke about ordinary frontline carers as being the real heroes of this year.

But in a more traditional way there are some people who have always inspired me and who have taught me something important about the essence of what matters. For most of my life I have found the story and example of Rosa Parks to be truly inspiring. Many of you will know her claim to fame and the heroism of her actions.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks when travelling home from work on a bus refused to give up her seat in the “coloured section” to a white passenger after the whites-only section was filled. Bus segregation was part and parcel of the law at the time and was a physical embodiment of the race laws that existed in the United States. She was arrested for civil disobedience in violating Alabama’s segregation laws. Her quiet dignity led to many in the black community to boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year which became the first major direct-action campaign of the post-war civil rights movement. Eventually in November 1956 the courts decided that bus segregation was unconstitutional. She became in many senses the ‘mother of the civil rights movement’, spent her life thereafter fighting for equality and now even has a day named after her to commemorate her actions.

After years of struggling to achieve justice , after her retirement, Parks wrote her autobiography and continued to insist that the struggle was not over and there was more work to be done. In her final years, she lived with dementia and spoke and wrote with passion about the rights of older people and those with dementia.

Today is the 15th anniversary of the death of Rosa Parks in 2005. It is with a real synchronicity of time that today is also the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.

On October 24, 1945, 51 countries came together to create the United Nations. Its purpose was to promote peace and cooperation around the world.

The 75th anniversary is happening at a time of massive upheaval and uncertainty for the world living as we are through the  global health crisis which is the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is resulting in severe economic and social turmoil. But as the UN has said this week it is also a reminder that times of struggle can become an opportunity for positive change and transformation. It is at such times that we learn what is intrinsic to life, why collective action and inter-national co-operation are so important, and perhaps why most of all peace is what remains the aspiration at the heart of the founding Charter of the UN.

There may be occasions when we can be tempted to forget the way in which the actions of others impact on our own story, but the global pandemic has shone a light on the way in which we are all inter-connected, one with the other, co-existing in our humanity and on our planet.

The COVID-19 pandemic for many of us has become a watershed. Even as we now respond to a second wave and no doubt prepare for future waves of the virus; even as we accept the reality that pandemics will become part of the pattern of our future, we are now being presented with opportunities to do better and be different.  These are the times when the lessons of our heroes can come off the page of our imagination and be written into action and response.

So, it is on this United Nations Day and in recognition of those who have stood up to injustice that I want to argue that Scotland needs to urgently decide to commit to creating the role of an Older Peoples Commissioner.

There has been much debate over the years about whether or not the time is right for Scotland to join Wales and Northern Ireland in the UK, and many other countries across the world in appointing an Older People’s Commissioner. I would argue that the time for such debate is over and that the pandemic response requires such a role to be created.

Ageism has been at the heart of so much of what has been the experience of older people during this pandemic. Whether it has been the suggestion that Covid19 was a ‘baby boomer harvest’ and only affected the old, all the way through to comments in the media this past week about the requirement to ‘segregate the old and vulnerable’ in order to protect and safeguard them. Throughout the pandemic there has been an obscene , conscious and at times unconscious, ageism at the centre of much social and media commentary. In practical actions, from a questionable ethical Guidance document which used age as a proxy for decision making, through to the inappropriate use of DNACPRs, to unequal treatment of older people in terms of access to social care packages, to the lack of agency and voice to those who receive care at the table of decisions – this pandemic has been a shameful enactment of profound age discrimination right across Scotland.  It is time for that to change. It is time for Government and political leadership across the parties in Scotland to take older age seriously and create a post for a Commissioner.

Scotland does indeed have a Minister for Older People but that is not enough – that is part of the structures of government, an Older People’s Commissioner is someone who is appointed by a parliament, responsible both to it but primarily to the older people of a nation, and who is enabled to speak and act with independence, able to hold those who rule and decide to account for responsible human rights based actions. She/he becomes an advocate for older age.

In the last few months I have had the privilege to work alongside Helena Herklots and Eddie Lynch, the Older People’s Commissioners in Wales and Northern Ireland respectively. Their ability to champion the voice of older people, to challenge and remind, to articulate and to speak out has been inspiring. Scotland needs such a voice to hold all of us to account, to remind all of us of our responsibilities. The election in 2021 should offer us that as a legacy to all who with older age have struggled in these last few months. I recognise  the creation of such a post is in itself no panacea but it is the first step in a journey to equality regardless of age. As a people, as communities and as a nation we must challenge the pernicious acceptance and allowance of age discrimination.

Growing up I was very aware that others had heroes who sat alongside those I held important. It felt to me that every night in my teenage years that I feel asleep to the sounds of the music of Bob Marley, the undoubted super-hero of my older brothers’ world. Over time – perhaps with sleep appreciation – I have grown to appreciate the awesome power of Marley’s words. One verse in particular resonates today as I remember those who have stood up for equality, justice and peace throughout the 75 years of the United Nations, including Rosa Parks who literally refused to move, and as I continue to work with others to create for Scotland an Older Peoples’ Commissioner.

Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight

 

Donald Macaskill