The shaming of older people: the need for urgent reform.

I have written many times over the years in this blog that the mark of any society or community that wants to enshrine dignity and humanity is the way in which it treats its older citizens. Events this past week showed just how poorly the governments of the world consider older age.

In New York, but mainly virtually, the United Nation’s 11th Session of the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) was meeting. The Group has existed since 2010 and is meant to consider the human rights of older persons and identify possible gaps in the law and how best to address them. For some time there has been a growing clamour for a new international treaty or convention for older people.

The 11th session held between the 29th of March and the 1st of April was lively with the largest ever attendance from non-governmental groups from across the globe. One of the reasons for this is the almost universal feeling that the human rights of older persons have been widely broken and ignored during the global response to the pandemic. Indeed speaker after speaker recounted ways in which they felt that the care and support of older people had been given secondary attention, the needs of older citizens had been an afterthought and that the whole of the pandemic had evidenced a discrimination to and disregard for older people’s human rights. It was a series of moving and passionate, angry and demanding contributions. Then…

On the final day of the meeting, April 1st, all those attending participated in the ‘Way Forward’ discussions on how the OEWG should progress its work. International human rights bodies and older people campaigners were unanimous in their view that the drafting of a new UN convention should commence immediately. A number of the Governmental representatives supported this call. But then things began to unravel because the final session almost didn’t take place due to the poor attendance of Member State (or Government) delegates. Many expressed outrage on social media. ‘After one hour and 45 minutes a quorum was finally reached, and the meeting concluded.’ Disappointingly, no decision was taken in the final meeting on the Way Forward or the creation of a sub-group to consider drawing up a new UN Convention.

Now creating a Convention and underlining the legal obligations which world Governments have to adhere to will not in and of itself mean that we will put an end to the glaring discrimination which older people face. I am not naïve and do not think that law alone changes conviction. But it is itself illustrative of the endemic discrimination that older people have faced during this pandemic that representatives of national governments could not even drag themselves to the final session of a UN body dedicated to addressing age discrimination.

The world needs a new Convention so that the human rights of older persons can be advanced and protected.

The lack of action and focus is even more farcical when you consider that in December 2020 the United Nations proclaimed 2021-2030 as the UN Decade for Healthy Ageing. This initiative, led by the World Health Organization (WHO), is meant to be an opportunity to bring together governments and civil society for ten years of concerted action to improve the lives of older people, their families, and the communities in which they live.

According to the Global Report on Ageism, released on 18 March 2021 by the World Health Organisation every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes – ‘leading to poorer physical and mental health and reduced quality of life for older persons, costing societies billions each year.’ Such a finding is a damning indictment of all our communities.

The aims of the Decade are laudable and include the need for action to change how we think, feel and act towards age and ageing and to ensure that communities foster the abilities of older people. Clearly in light of the passivity of the United Nations last week and  the pervasive ageism in our countries we have a long way to go.

All this might sound and feel to be of academic and distant interest, but it impacts on what we do or do not do here in Scotland. There has been very real unease about the way in which we have responded to the needs of older people in the pandemic. I have written a lot about the human rights failures in our early clinical advice, in our attention to the mental health impacts of lockdown, the use of DNACPRs, in our failure to test practice by human rights assessment, and most especially the impacts on the rights of older people in care homes by a lockdown that went way beyond what was acceptable. There are many other areas where older people feel they have not been heard or valued as the world around them struggled with coronavirus.

It is time for Scotland to join both Wales and Northern Ireland in appointing an Older Person’s Commissioner, to have a post which can hold accountable both national and local Government for their actions and policies as they impact on older people. The work of Helena Herklots in Wales and Eddie Lynch in Northern Ireland has shown beyond doubt that such a post really can make a difference to older people.

I do not have any insight into the political party manifestoes for the election that is a few weeks away, but even if they do not have such a commitment within them, I hope we can all commit to making it one of the legacies of the pain of the last year that Scotland can join other nations in appointing an Older Person’s Commissioner.

The events of the last week in New York show the marginalising of older age in the priorities of world government, they should not be allowed to dictate the response of Scotland to such challenges. How can you have a Decade of Healthy Ageing when you fail to respond to such a glaring need?

Perhaps it is that we need to find some of the angry energy and passionate vigour of older age described by the great Liverpool poet Roger McCough and declare not for us the passive platitudes of political acceptance but the need to transform with urgent vigour and an unsettling of the status quo our response to older age? We will never achieve the aims of Healthy Ageing and truly transform our ageist society unless older age itself acts to demand it.


‘Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death

When I’m 73
and in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an allnight party

Or when I’m 91
with silver hair
and sitting in a barber’s chair
may rival gangsters
with hamfisted tommyguns burst in
and give me a short back and insides

Or when I’m 104
and banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
and fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
and throw away every piece but one

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a free from sin tiptoe in
candle wax and waning death
not a curtains drawn by angels borne
‘what a nice way to go’ death.’


Donald Macaskill