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The Fight for Elder Rights

A review of new proposals to put a stop to elder abuse and support the rights of the elderly around the world.
(Photo: Ulrich Joho/Flickr)

(Photo: Ulrich Joho/Flickr)

In California last month, a caretaker at a health center was arrested for taking her older patient’s credit card on a shopping spree. In Illinois last month, a woman hired to care for a bedridden elderly woman was caught on camera tying her up and beating her. And nursing home staff cutting budgets across the country are repeatedly revealed to be unprepared and untrained for their residents’ medical needs.

These stories are as common as they are upsetting. Pacific Standard has shown how older people are common targets for things like lottery scams and fake charities. But elder abuse is a category that covers much more than just talking a sweet old lady out of her last few bucks. It’s not a topic that’s discussed as often as child abuse, but aging people who have limited mobility, limited means, or diminished mental abilities can obviously be vulnerable to abuse and neglect of all kinds.

The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that elder abuse affects five million Americans a year, and that, for every one case that comes to light, there are 23 more that remain hidden. Abuse can include “physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, as well as neglect, abandonment, and financial exploitation.” And according to a new “Roadmap” project to improve research and policy, it will take a wide range of actions to address it—including better public awareness, studying brain health issues, and providing more support for caregivers of the elderly.

In the legal realm, the Department of Justice has also recently tried to attract attention to elder abuse by offering a new training program for civil legal aid attorneys who would represent older clients. On the state level, some states are now making it mandatory to report suspected elder abuse, just like the reporting of child abuse has been.

But others are working on a bolder and more comprehensive illustration of this huge issue. The John Marshall Law School, Roosevelt University, and East China University of Political Science and Law joined at a conference last week to draft “The Chicago Declaration on the Rights of Older Persons,” which they will present to the United Nations next month. It’s a wide-sweeping and official document on human rights, but it starts off somewhat poetically:

(a) Recognizing the wisdom, contributions, and vision derived from the sacrifice and experience of older persons and their positive effect on life and culture around the world; and recognizing that the great increase in life expectancy that has taken place in the past century should not be perceived as a burden for society but as a positive trend....

The declaration suggests not only measures to stop elder abuse, but also general policies that can help fight age discrimination in the workplace, and give older people more say in their medical decisions. “Older persons have the right to protection from medical abuses, including forced hospitalization on the basis of age, and nonconsensual medical experimentation,” it declares, chillingly. “Older persons have a right to be free from all forms of exploitation, violence, abuse, and neglect.”

After stating policy recommendations and obligations for governments around the world, the declaration takes care to make itself as broad as possible. And in doing so, it not only expands the definition of who would fall under its protection—it also expands the scope of who is responsible for doing the protecting.

“For the purposes of the present Declaration, an ‘older person’ is generally any person who solely due to chronological age is considered under local or national law to be an older person or is perceived as being an older person,” it concludes. “This Declaration recognizes that a specific age at which a person is considered or is perceived as being an older person will vary from country, region, setting, change in social role, capabilities, and other circumstances.”