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The Rights of the Aged

Rights at Stake
International and Regional Instruments of Protection and Promotion
National Assistance, Protection and Service Agencies
Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials
Other Resources


Over the past several decades a massive change has taken place in a key demographic area of the planet’s human population: age. Our current body of scientific knowledge tells us that the history of humankind has always been marked by high birth rates that are accompanied by correspondingly high death rates. Historically, the majority of people on the planet at one time have been aged somewhere in the middle of the then-current age range or have tended to be younger than the median age. However, due to the trend of lower birth rates and lower death rates, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, one out of every ten people on the planet is now 60 years of age or older. If the current trend of lowering birth rates and lowering death rates continues, by the year 2050 one out of five people will be aged 60 years or older and by 2150, one out of every three people will be aged 60 years or older. Additionally, the oldest old are the most rapidly expanding segment of the elderly population. Currently, the oldest old make up 11 percent of the 60+ age group and will grow to 19 percent by 2050.

Many governments have support systems in place for elderly persons such as social security and free or discounted medical care, for example. However, most of these systems were built on the premise that there will always be significantly fewer older persons than younger or middle-aged individuals living at one time. Because of declining death rates, therefore, these systems are beginning to feel a strain that will only increase over time. Additionally, the older-person support ratio is falling in both more and less developed regions, which could further lessen the ability of societies and governments to care for their aging populations.

These demographic trends create unique challenges for all people, particularly for the governments of nation-states around the globe. Elderly individuals are often subject to discrimination and abuse because they are perceived as easily taken advantage of. There is also a prevalent belief among many that elderly persons are worthless in today’s fast-paced, globalized and increasingly industrialized world. Obviously, with the number of elderly people on earth at any one time rising rapidly, there is an increased urgency to address the rights and roles of elderly persons in our world.


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Rights at Stake

The rights of aged persons can be broken down into three main categories: protection, participation and image. Protection refers to securing the physical, psychological and emotional safety of elderly persons with regard to their unique vulnerability to abuse and ill treatment. Participation refers to the need to establish a greater and more active role for older persons in society. Image refers to the need to define a more positive, less degrading and discriminatory idea of who elderly persons are and what they are capable of doing. Regional intergovernmental organizations in particular have begun to deal with these categories of rights in some detail in their recommendations and treaties.

Special consideration for the rights of the elderly has been granted relatively recently in recommendations and treaties between international instruments, like the Council of Europe. These more detailed recommendations and agreements on the rights of the elderly, however, are all based upon the fundamental premises established in documents like the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Article 25, paragraph 1, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is established that:


“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” [italics added]

Elderly persons’ right to security is particularly vulnerable to violation. For example, a component of the right to security is the right to healthcare if one, due to old age, is unable to afford or pursue healthcare on one’s own. Although many countries currently have universal healthcare systems, these systems are beginning to feel the strain of an increasingly aged population, and there is some question about how these systems will be maintained in the future. In other countries, like the United States, where there are only federally and state-subsidized healthcare programs for those who are indigent, disabled or elderly, rising healthcare costs are threatening the survival of these systems. These rights are related to the right to an adequate standard of living, which is often affected in the case of the elderly, due to lack of an adequate support system for them.

Elderly individuals also have the right to non-discrimination. Elderly people should not be thought of as useless to society simply because some of them may need more care than the average person. These stereotypes of the elderly can lead to degrading treatment, inequality and, sometimes, abuse.

Similarly, elderly persons’ right to participation is sometimes threatened due to prevailing negative images societies hold of the aged. The aged are often not given the same opportunities as others to be productive members of society. Governments are obliged to aid in creating a more positive image of the abilities and strengths of older populations as well as solid opportunities for elderly people to participate in the ongoing creation of their societies.

The elderly’s right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is also often threatened. People sometimes take advantage of the vulnerability of elderly persons. People in old age, particularly older women, are often victims of neglect and physical and psychological abuse. Additionally, elderly refugees during humanitarian crises often fall victim to the torture and abuse that is sometimes inflicted upon civilian populations.

Who is most at risk for having their rights, as elderly persons, violated?
Elderly women are at the greatest risk for having their rights violated. In general, women are historically more vulnerable toward violence due to their traditionally subordinate position in most cultures. Coupled with the negative image many cultures hold of elderly people, being a woman can make one particularly susceptible to violence and abuse. Considering that 55 percent of older persons are women and that, in the oldest old category 65 percent are women, special consideration must be given to the effect of sex on the likelihood of rights violation and abuse.

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International and Regional Instruments for Protection and Promotion

International legal instruments take the form of a treaty (also called agreement, convention, or protocol) that binds the contracting states to the negotiated terms. When negotiations are completed, the text of a treaty is established as authentic and definitive and is "signed" by the representatives of states. A state can agree to be bound to a treaty in various ways. The most common are ratification or accession. A new treaty is ratified by those states that have negotiated the instrument. A state that has not participated in the negotiations may, at a later stage, accede to the treaty. The treaty enters into force, or becomes valid, when a pre-determined number of states have ratified or acceded to the treaty.

When a state ratifies or accedes to a treaty, that state may make reservations to one or more articles of the treaty, unless reservations are prohibited by the treaty. Reservations may normally be withdrawn at any time. In some countries, international treaties take precedence over national law; in others a specific law may be required to give a ratified international treaty the force of a national law. Practically all states that have ratified or acceded to an international treaty must issue decrees, change existing laws, or introduce new legislation in order for the treaty to be fully effective on the national territory.

The binding treaties can be used to force governments to respect the treaty provisions that are relevant for the human rights of the elderly. The non-binding instruments, such as declarations and resolutions, can be used in relevant situations to embarrass governments by negative public exposure; governments who care about their international image may consequently adapt their policies.

The following are the international treaties, declarations and commitments that determine standards for the protection of the rights of elderly persons:


Charter of the United Nations (1945) (article 55)
Article 55 of the Charter pledges member states of the United Nations to promote higher standards of living for all people, social and economic progress, international cooperation on social issues including health and education and universal respect for human rights regardless of individual background or characteristics.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (article 3, 22, 25, 27)
The Universal Declaration asserts that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. Furthermore, everyone is entitled to social security and the realization of any economic, social and cultural rights that are essential to that individual’s dignity and personality development. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate in cultural activities in their community and share in the benefits of the arts and sciences. Finally, everyone is entitled to a standard of living adequate for one’s health and well-being including food, clothing, housing and medical care as well as any needed social services provided by the governments of nation-states. Most important to elderly persons, in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood or old age, one has the right to security due to circumstances beyond one’s control.

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) (article 24)
This convention establishes that states shall treat refugees lawfully abiding in their territory with the same respect for rights as other nationals including providing for a refugee’s social security in the event of sickness, disability or old age. As elderly refugees can face very specific challenges from other refugees, this article is particularly applicable to them and their legal rights.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (article 9, 11, 12)
This treaty reiterates the right of everyone to social security. Additionally, all people are entitled to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing and housing. Going further than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant also guarantees everyone the right to continuous improvement of living conditions. This can be interpreted to mean that governments should be continuously work toward improving the living conditions of all people, including those under the care of the state, for example, some aged persons.

Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (1975) (article 5, 9, 10, 12)
This declaration defines the status of disabled persons. As some elderly persons often suffer from various types of disabilities, the rules established in this declaration are also applicable to them. Disabled people are entitled to all measures designed to assist them in becoming as self-reliant as possible. If a disabled person must stay in an institution for assistance, that individual is entitled to living conditions that come as close as possible to those of other people of the same age. Disabled persons are protected from exploitation and abuse. Organizations of disabled persons are to play a useful consulting role in any issue regarding the rights of the disabled.

ILO Recommendation No. 162 concerning Older Workers (1980) (section II, paragraph 5(g))
This recommendation states that older workers must enjoy equality of opportunity and treatment with other workers without age discrimination, including access to housing, social services and health institutions, particularly when this access is related to occupational activity or employment.

Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993)
This document’s focus is on violence against women as both a violation of their rights and as an obstacle to achieving equality. It outlines the types of violence often committed against women and brings special attention to groups of women that are particularly vulnerable, including elderly women.

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African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981) (article 18)
The first charter of the African Union dealing with human rights recognizes the basic, specific right of aged and/or disabled persons to special measures of protection and security according to their needs, both physical and moral.


European Social Charter (1961) (article 11, 12, 13, 14)
This charter indirectly clarifies rights that are applicable to the situations of many elderly people: the need for a system of social security and medical care. European states are obligated under this charter to eradicate, as far as science will currently allow, the sources and conditions of ill-health as well as prevent the spread of disease. They are also committed to developing systems of social security for those who lack the resources to provide for their own security. Those individuals are also entitled to receiving appropriate medical care for when their condition necessitates it.

Recommendation R(87)22 on the screening and surveillance of elderly persons (1987)
Screening and surveillance of elderly persons should be conducted in order to prolong life of a high quality, “improve subjective well-being,” enhance the ability of elderly persons to function socially and prevent and lessen the impact of diseases. Hence, this recommendation suggests that member states should develop facilities for screening and surveillance of the elderly and motivate the elderly to attend these screenings. Additionally, all health staff involved with these facilities should receive training in geriatric medicine and gerontology. Finally, the collection of relevant data is encouraged so that these facilities will become more effective in the future.

Recommendation R(94)9 Social Cohesion and Quality of Life (1994) (including appendix)
This recommendation was developed due to concern over the increasing numbers of elderly persons in Europe and their tendency toward social exclusion, particularly the exclusion of elderly women, due to the fact that they tend to outlive men by several years. This recommendation is extremely short. However, the Appendix provides guiding principles for member states to follow when developing policies concerning the welfare of elderly people. The recommendation recognizes that the majority of elderly people actually live their lives autonomously and are, “in principle not more dependent than the population as a whole.” It also recognizes the value of elderly people to the general population, particularly younger generations. It recognizes the right of elderly persons to continue to live a high quality of life and to live securely. The elderly should also be enabled to live as autonomously as possible and continue to make their own choices. Elderly individuals should be able to participate fully in their society and have the resources to enable them to do that. Governments should work to prevent the social exclusion of the elderly. Information on issues pertinent to the elderly should be readily available to them as well as other individuals in their networks of security.

Recommendation 1254 on the medical and welfare rights of the elderly: ethics and policies (1994)
This recommendation was composed due to the concern that traditional rules and systems of social welfare are at risk of being dismantled because of the financial considerations of prominent lobbies in governments: scientific, medical and economic. Because of the aging of much of Europe’s population, this is of particular concern. For central and eastern European countries, it is recommended that short-term measures are taken to secure the welfare of elderly persons due to the often unstable political and economic situations in many states of the region. The recommendation suggests that states in this region of Europe guarantee minimum incomes that will provide for the security of the elderly population. Additionally, eastern European governments are advised to prevent the deterioration of the public health system and provide for affordable medical care for the aged, provide for local services for the elderly and hone the effectiveness of existing social programs for this population. As to Western Europe, the recommendation suggests member states develop an employment and labor policy to carve out a new nook in society for the participation of the elderly, draw up a solid retirement and pensions policy, control public healthcare costs and increase local services for the elderly.

Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter (1998) (part II, article 4)
Every elderly person is entitled to social protection. Elderly persons should be enabled to remain full participants and contributors to society for as long as possible. They should have ready access to services and resources to make this possible. Elderly persons should retain the right to live freely and retain their independence for as long as they desire or are capable of doing. They should also have access to suitable housing for their needs as well as access to health care. Those aged persons who are institutionalized should be guaranteed any necessary support, but should also have access to privacy and have the right to contribute to decision-making in the institutions in which they are staying.

Recommendation 1428 on the future of senior citizens: protection, participation and promotion (1999)
This recommendation was developed after the United Nations declared 1999 the “International Year of Older Persons.” It also recognizes the development of the Group of Specialists on Optimising the Living Conditions of Elderly Dependent People within the Council of Europe. A couple of heretofore unmentioned concerns about the elderly include those older persons living in rural areas and the extreme disparities between their living conditions. The recommendation also encourages research to be done on the elderly at the national level so that programs can be tailored to the unique challenges of older persons in certain geographical locations. Additionally, it encourages states and local governments to develop new measures for the protection, increased societal participation and creation of a more positive image for the elderly.


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Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000) (article 25, 34, 35)
This recent charter recognizes the right of the elderly to live in an independent and respectable manner and be active participants in social and cultural life of member states. In the event of old age, individuals are also secured the right to social security benefits as well as social services. Additionally, those who lack sufficient resources are entitled to decent housing. Everyone is entitled to preventative healthcare and medical treatment as provided for by national law.





American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (1948) (article 11, 16)
This declaration states that all people have the right to be able to maintain their standard of health within the resources of the community or state. Additionally, in the event of old age, one is entitled to social security in order to maintain an adequate standard of living.

American Convention on Human Rights (1969) (article 5, 6)
This convention establishes that everyone has the right to humane treatment, which is important, as the elderly are often victims of neglect and abuse.

Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1988) (article 9, 10, 11, 12, 17, 18)
Similar to the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the this protocol establishes that, in the event of old age, one is entitled to social security in order to maintain an adequate standard of living. Additionally, if this individual is to die, and has dependents, the dependents will receive social security benefits at the time of the individual’s death. Article 17 specifically states that special protection is an entitlement of persons of old age. Elderly persons who cannot provide themselves have the right to acceptable facilities, food and medical care. Also, elderly persons actually have the right, according to this document, to participate in work programs that allow individuals to participate in productive work consistent with their needs and wants. Member states are, furthermore, obligated to aid in the establishment of social organizations created in order to improve the lives of elderly persons.

Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (1994)
This convention declares that all women have the right to be free from violence and discrimination in all of its forms, which includes elderly women, who are particularly susceptible to violence.

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National Assistance, Protection and Service Agencies

Much is currently being done on an international level to prepare for the ensuing crisis of our world’s aging population. It is widely recognized that the elderly are often victims of discrimination and abuse and that their unique needs are often not sufficiently met by their governments and communities. Additionally, societies have still not clearly established a new, more active role for our world’s elderly citizens in creating culture and community, nor have many programs been developed to enable the elderly to more actively participate in society.

In fact, most of what has been accomplished in protecting the rights of the elderly has been done, thus far, in an intergovernmental international or regional setting. Many governments of nation-states, unfortunately, are experiencing serious crises in implementing or maintaining protection programs for their elderly citizenry. For example, currently, in the United States, the social security system is at risk of being overhauled and privatized, or, some fear, eventually dismantled. Additionally, Medicare, a healthcare system for people ages 65 and older, sometimes does not sufficiently cover the healthcare costs of those elderly people who are indigent, nor does it cover the cost of prescription medications. Furthermore, the cost of these medications is rapidly rising. Many elderly citizens, unable to afford their medications, will skip doses. Some of these medications are necessary to the survival of these individuals.

Even in countries that have well-established universal healthcare systems, like Canada and most European countries, rising healthcare costs have caused governments to make cutbacks in services offered to their citizens. Also, these governments have an interest in keeping the prices of prescription drugs down primarily because they cover the majority of the cost of these drugs. Therefore, new medicines that could be beneficial to citizens often are delayed in their entrance into the market because of negotiations over costs between drug companies and governments. Furthermore, the wait for nonessential surgeries and medical procedures can be years in some countries with universal healthcare.

Regardless of these problems, there are many national nongovernmental organizations that perform advocacy and policy-related work for elderly individuals. In 1989 the World Medical Association adopted the Declaration of Hong Kong on the Abuse of the Elderly. This declaration assesses the abuse of the elderly against their frequent background of dependency on others for assistance and their and tendency toward pathological problems, motor disturbances, psychic and orientation disorders. The World Medical Association, therefore, establishes that the elderly have the same rights to care and welfare as all other human beings. Physicians have a responsibility to prevent the abuse of their elderly patients. They also are obliged to report suspected cases of physical and psychological abuse to the proper local authorities. Additionally, in order to ensure the protection of the elderly, they should be able to freely exercise their right to choose their own physician.


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Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials

For advocates

Rights and Freedoms for All Ages (Quebec Commission on Human and Children's Rights)
This extensive online training module offers general information about human rights as well as the rights of the elderly.


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Other Resources

Courses and training opportunities

Organisations advocating for and educating about the aged

International Day of Older Persons (1 October)



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Key terms

Elderly - individuals aged 65 years or older

Older persons support ratio - the number of persons aged 15-64 years per older persons aged 65 years or older

Oldest old - individuals aged 80 years or old

This guide was developed by Meagan English.

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