The Human Rights of the Elderly

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Section eleven of thirteen of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s 2018 peace proposal, “Toward an Era of Human Rights: Building a People’s Movement.”

Grandmother with her grandchild on her back and another on her lap In a world experiencing a rapid increase in the population of senior citizens, the rights of older persons must be protected [Photo by Asian Development Bank/CC BY-NC-ND]

Next, I would like to address the human rights of the elderly, an urgent issue confronting contemporary society.

According to the UN, there are more than 900 million people aged sixty and over living in the world today, and this number is expected to reach 1.4 billion by 2030. [68] Many governments, particularly those of developed countries, are struggling to respond to the sudden changes in social structure brought about by rapidly declining birth rates and aging demographics.

This was one of the issues discussed at the eighth session of the Open-ended Working Group on Ageing held at the UN in July 2017. It was pointed out that the enjoyment of all human rights diminishes with age, in spite of the declaration in the UDHR that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights; this is due to negative images of the elderly as less productive, less valuable to society, a burden to the economy and to younger generations. Participants agreed that such structural discrimination and prejudice can lead to the social exclusion of older persons and must be combated.

The need to protect the rights of older persons was addressed in a draft resolution submitted to the UN General Assembly by Argentina in 1948, shortly before the UDHR was adopted in Paris. However, the rights of the aged did not draw the interest of governments for many years; international discourse on the subject only began to develop in earnest with the Vienna World Assembly on Ageing, held in 1982. That discourse resulted in the adoption of five UN Principles for Older Persons in 1991, comprising independence, participation, care, self-fulfillment and dignity. While independence (respecting the will of the individual), care (safeguarding health and daily living) and dignity (ensuring protection from discrimination and abuse) are of course core rights of the aged, it is crucial to remember that on their own they are only a starting point.

I am reminded here of the dialogue I conducted with Dr. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Co-President of the Club of Rome. One of the topics we discussed was how to bring a sense of purpose and fulfillment to the lives of older persons. Based on his experience, Dr. Weizsäcker stressed that it would benefit society as a whole to create the conditions by which older persons could continue working if they so desired. [69]

I fully agree with his opinion; it is my firm belief that being able to contribute in some way to the happiness of others and the world, be it through work or in some other capacity, brings one joy and fulfillment in life. In that sense, the other two UN Principles—participation and self-fulfillment—are indispensable in enabling elderly persons to experience meaning and satisfaction in their lives.

To be treated well is, of course, essential to a person’s experience of dignity. But even more important is being looked to by others as an irreplaceable source of spiritual support. It is this that brings our dignity to an even brighter luster. The significance of such bonds remains unchanged even by grave illness or dependence on others for nursing care. Being surrounded by people who derive joy and happiness from your presence is itself a source of dignity.

Three years ago, the Soka Gakkai in Japan launched the exhibition “Hope and the Culture of Peace,” which seeks to counteract negative images of aging by presenting the stories of older persons who are actively contributing to the welfare of young people and of society as a whole. The exhibition calls for the creation of a culture of peace and of human societies that treasure the rich experience and wisdom of the elderly.

related article The Power of Human Rights Education The Power of Human Rights Education In a world that is increasingly interconnected, a challenge of human rights is to bring people together across differences. Human rights education helps us recognize and guard against attitudes that put up barriers to others’ experience of human dignity. As emphasized at the Second World Assembly on Ageing (2002) and later by the Open-ended Working Group on Ageing (2017), protecting the human rights of older persons is integral to the creation of a culture of human rights that respects people of all ages and will not brook any form of discrimination.

The need for an international legal instrument for the protection of the rights of older persons was among the topics deliberated at the Open-ended Working Group on Ageing, and in this regard, I strongly hope there will be an early start to negotiations on a convention on the rights of older persons. I would also like to propose that a third World Assembly on Ageing be held in Japan, where the aging of the population is more advanced than anywhere else in the world.

The Political Declaration and Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing agreed upon at the Second World Assembly on Ageing stresses that the experiences and resources of older persons can be “an asset in the growth of mature, fully integrated, humane societies,” [70] and that, in addition to their role as leaders in the family and community, they can contribute positively to coping with emergencies and to promoting rehabilitation and reconstruction.

This has in fact been the experience of Japan in its reconstruction efforts following the March 11, 2011, Tohoku Earthquake. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 adopted at the Third UN World Conference on the issue describes how the participation of older persons is indispensable for enhancing the disaster risk management capacity of society. [71]

A convention on the rights of older persons should be based on the UN Principles referenced above. Further, it should include provisions for what is known as “aging in place,” whereby people are enabled to continue living with dignity and a sense of purpose in their long-accustomed community.

Sharing personal narratives of overcoming life’s inevitable hardships is a central aspect of the SGI’s faith activities, with local organizations actively working to create spaces for this. Many older members have sparked the flame of courage and hope in the hearts of younger generations through words that carry the unique weight of deeply lived experience.

In 1988, three years before the UN Principles for Older Persons were adopted, I proposed that the Soka Gakkai group comprising our more elderly members be called the Many Treasures Group. One chapter of the Lotus Sutra describes the emergence of an enormous Treasure Tower adorned with innumerable jewels and precious stones. A Buddha named Many Treasures Buddha appears within this tower and testifies to the truth of Shakyamuni’s teaching that all people are endowed with inherent dignity. It was with this in mind that I proposed this name for my beloved friends who have accumulated invaluable experience in the twin realms of life and faith. Following the formation of the Many Treasures Group, groups in specific regions of Japan were also formed, including the Lifespan Treasures Group in Tokyo and the Golden Treasures Group in Kansai. There are now similar groups around the world, such as the Goldener Herbst (Golden Autumn) Group in Germany and the Diamond Group in Australia.

Our older friends are truly treasures both within our Buddhist organization and in their respective communities. They have told their stories of meeting and transcending, through their practice of faith, the inevitable sufferings of what Buddhism refers to as birth, aging, sickness and death, playing an invaluable role in perpetuating the spiritual legacy of peace activism within the SGI as they share their experiences of war, including experiences as atomic bomb survivors. They have also helped sustain networks of mutual support and encouragement in the process of recovery from disaster with their deep knowledge of the history of the community and human relationships there.

The SGI will continue to promote the sharing of personal narratives, passing on the lessons of life, war and disaster to future generations. To this end, we will join with other faith-based organizations to hold symposia aimed at generating in society a new ethos of protecting the rights and dignity of older persons.

Notes

68. UN DESA, “Chair Summary.”
69. See Ikeda and Weizsäcker, Knowing Our Worth, 131–34.
70. UN, “Political Declaration and Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing,” 10.
71. See UNISDR, “Sendai Framework,” 23.

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