International Human Rights Day (IHRD) is observed every year on 10 December – the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is a milestone document, which proclaims the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
To mark International Human Rights Day (IHRD) 2021, several staff members across UoR have written blog pieces about protected characteristics and their importance.
Professor Arlene Astell, Professor in Neurodegenerative Disease, School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences
If anyone doubted the need to include ‘Age’ as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a harsh spotlight on the needs of a large sector of the population. First, as we all know the majority of excess deaths from COVID-19 have occurred among older persons. The loss of life has affected millions of people across the world, with many heart-wrenching stories of families unable to visit their loved ones or even attend their funerals. Yet a shocking analysis produced by the UN Secretary General in September 2021 examining the impact of COVID-19 on older people, reported a rise in ageism and stigma towards ageing and older persons. The scale of this problem is quantified in another UN publication, their Global Report on Ageism, which suggests that half the world’s population is ageist, yet this is somehow regarded as “more acceptable” than discrimination against other groups. These findings indicate a major need for continued education and challenging of negative stereotypes and attitudes towards ageing.
Evidence of ageism is widespread in all aspects of life. For example, older workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic are finding it difficult to get back into employment as employers prefer younger candidates. This has major implications for an individual’s identity and sense of purpose which are increasingly important as we live longer and need to plan for life after paid employment. There is a huge difference between being able to proactively decide to reduce the time one works and being forced into early retirement, not least from a financial perspective. Additionally, older people actively resist stereotypes of ageing and try to continue to live the life they want. For example, in my work around technology adoption, we have found that most people want to remain independent and be able to look after themselves and will use technology that helps them to remain at home. They are well aware of ageing stereotypes and will reject devices that make them look or feel dependent, frail or incapable.
In terms of ageing stereotypes, one condition – dementia – seems to epitomise the negative attitudes towards old age. I have worked with people living with dementia for my whole career, and it is a topic surrounded by myths and misconceptions. These are always unhelpful, and some are even harmful in terms of the lack of understanding about what people living with dementia experience and what they need. In terms of their human rights, people living with dementia struggle to enjoy them because they are excluded in many different ways. Dementia is an irreversible progressive brain disorder which means that over time people have difficulty looking after themselves. As with many other conditions, they come to rely on other people to provide care and support. However, the way people with dementia are viewed and treated is very different to people living with cancer or diabetes.
The explanation seems to because dementia relates to losing memory and other aspects of cognition, such as attention and concentration. From this we see the adoption and perpetuation of attitudes towards people with dementia that they are incapable and infantile, and viewed as unaware and unknowing of how they are being treated. What is most concerning is how easily these attitudes are taken on board and persist across society, suggesting that dementia matches and reinforces prevailing views of old age.
In respect of technology use, the pandemic has highlighted global inequalities associated with ageing. Specifically, the pandemic has seen the movement of many services including healthcare and banking, to online. Whilst this has been driven by the necessity of reducing human contact to reduce transmission and some would argue this is a positive change,
older adults are most likely to not have internet access or necessary equipment for using online services. For example, a report released by the Older Adults Technology Services, Inc. (OATS) and the Humana Foundation in January 2021 found that 42% of the over 65s in the United States, roughly 22 million people, lacked broadband access at home. In the UK, the picture is even more stark. Data from the Office of National Statistics shows that 67% of the 3 million people who are offline are aged 70 or over with another 32% aged between 50-69. These figures reflect the picture worldwide.
In recognition of the importance of addressing the ‘Digital Divide’, the theme for 2021 International Day of Older Persons was “Digital Equity for All Ages”. This highlighted economic and social inequalities as the major drivers of the digital divide as individuals largely rely on self-paying for devices and internet access. The widespread implications of this digital divide include lack of access to digital healthcare (including telehealth and apps for managing chronic conditions), social services and public health information, plus increased risk of social isolation. Challenging digital exclusion requires political will to ensure equitable access to the Internet and devices. It also requires training, resources and support for reaching older people and tackling of persistent stereotypes that they do not want or cannot use digital tools. IN 20 years of working with technology and older adults, including people living with dementia, I have always found them keen to try anything new.