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Time for a Gray Revolution?


older people issues
Older women are especially subject to poverty and discrimination. Here, a mother of an activist in Caloocan City, Philippines, who was killed. JOE PENNEY

The United Nations is the place to go for people who are oppressed or neglected to discuss their problems and try to find solutions. One of the most recent special-interest groups to meet at the UN highlighted the plight of older people, who, of course, have grievances and want to be heard.

“No longer is the world predominantly young,” said Richard Blewitt, chief executive of HelpAge International, a nonprofit organization based in Britain. Yet, people in the upper age brackets – generally, 65 and over – are not specifically mentioned in upcoming UN agendas, Blewitt noted at a Feb. 3 event, “Older Persons in Action Toward a Society for All Ages.”

“Where is aging in the international debate?” Blewitt asked at the panel discussion, held during the 50th session of the Commission for Social Development, which works on poverty eradication as part of the UN’s Economic and Social Council.  “Nowhere.”

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The panel, sponsored by the Finnish government with HelpAge International and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), featured remarks by Jarmo Viinanen, Finnish ambassador to the UN, and four panelists: Blewitt; Vappu Taipale, a child psychiatrist and chairwoman of the Union of Senior Services in Valli, Finland; Galina Poliakova, director of Age Concern Ukraine, a charity; and Johan Lodewyk Strijdom, head of social welfare for the African Union.

An “age watch”

Older people are the fastest-growing segment of the world’s population, creating policy challenges in countries where longevity is high and the number of youths is shrinking. Older people do have a major global policy program to help protect and advance their rights, the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, a 2002 nonbinding treaty adoped by the Second World Assembly on Ageing at the UN.

But the Madrid plan does not mean that older people are getting the attention and services they need. As Blewitt said, there is no specific UN agency leading the way on turning the plan into sustained action. Nor was there reference to aging in Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s pillars of work for his second five-year term.

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HelpAge International
A Kyrgyzstan man heats his home with coal and manure to cope with the harsh winters. Photo from HelpAge International

The objectives for policy makers, Blewitt said, should include creating an “age watch,” or portal, for data on aging (which he says is meager); projecting the voices of senior citizens in policy circles; working on discrimination in humanitarian situations and other “persistent” age-related discrimination; securing a special rapporteur at the Human Rights Council; and tackling elderly poverty.

Ukraine’s kind police

In Ukraine, Poliakova’s organization runs centers to inform older people of their rights and advocate for services. She characterized Ukraine as neither a developed country nor a developing country, with the population of 46 million declining 12 percent since 1990, a reflection of low birth rates. A fifth of the country is over 60 years old, making it one of the grayest nations in the world. Ukraine also has high rates of depression among older women, Poliakova said, while estimates for life expectancy are lower for men (63 years old) than for women (75); in short, a “big country of widows.”

The problems are not only that elderly women are lonely and men die too young, but that the older generation, which lived under a Communist regime, has been unable to adapt to new political and economic changes, leaving older folks isolated, poor and objects of discrimination.

Bias in Ukraine is most prevalent in health services and public transportation, a survey by Poliakova’s charity found. Whereas funeral parlors provide the best services, she said.

And the greatest abusers of older people are civil servants, families, neighbors and health-care providers, Poliakova added, while the nicest people are the police.

They want to work

In Finland, older people arguably receive the most sophisticated social benefits in the Western world, but that doesn’t mean they are all happy. Like Ukraine, Finland has a low fertility rate and a booming elderly population, making it “the biggest issue of socio-economic concern for policymakers” in the country, wrote Barbara Crossette, the author of a UN annual report on world population.

vappu taipale
Vappu Taipale, a Finnish advocate for older people, says that above all, the elderly want to work and to live independently.

“Aging,” Taipale, the Finnish panelist said, “is a megatrend.”

Taipale, who was the only speaker to reveal her age – 71 – is a grandmother of six and a child psychologist. Demystifying the image of older people as docile and dormant, she emphasized that older people want to work, either in paying jobs or as volunteers, and that they want to live independently. Even in Finland, seniors cannot escape the stigma of being old, Taipale said, pointing to a photo in her visual presentation of a woman with a colorful wool hat and a beaming face and asking, isn’t she beautiful?

Taipale bemoaned age discrimination in the labor market and the medicalization of death, which is “kept out of sight,” adding that important strategies for coping with older people’s needs must be innovative and must be met.

“People are afraid of aging,” she said, “especially in the West.” But the “silver market,” is an undeveloped economic source that investors and businesses should heed, suggesting that older people could conduct their own Arab Spring.

“We need a revolution for services, to promote well-being and new technology for self-care,” she said. Ask us, the older people, and we’ll tell you what we need and what can be done, Taipale added.

Africa’s sudden aging population

In Africa, the situation is about an increasing older population that faces virtually no services at all. Strijdom, who works in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the African Union is based, said that “a majority of Africans expect to grow older and live longer than earlier generations,” adding that there will be 212 million senior citizens in 2050, a marked increase compared with previous decades.

In Africa, older people are the “poorest of the poor,” and older women are especially subject to “extreme abuse.” Moreover, older Africans lack social security and their extended families are now far-flung, leaving them more vulnerable, to some extent, than other aging populations because the phenomenon is so new to the continent and so few policies are in place to handle the problems.

Nevertheless, the African Union is slowly progressing on the matter, drafting regional instruments to protect older people’s rights, Strijdom said, and put “more muscle” behind the protocols already in place.

Additional resources:

Seven Billion: What It Looks Like in Nine Countries

Population Growth Threatens the Poorest



We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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