The 20th Annual Celebration of the International Day of Older Persons was commemorated on 7 October in New York, one week after the official United Nations observance on 1 October. The anniversary is highly significant as, over these two decades, the world’s population has undergone a major shift, with ageing populations booming throughout the world.
The centerpiece of the New York celebration was a debate on the theme of “Older Persons and the Achievement of the Millennium Development Goals,” with a side event entitled “Are Older People Invisible?” held on 5 October. Both events aimed to examine the progress made towards the empowerment of older persons, their participation in society and the promotion of a positive image of ageing.
The main debate began with a message from Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, delivered by Jean-Pierre Gonnot of DESA. “I call on Governments to do more to address the needs of older persons…granting universal access to social services, increasing …pension plans and creating laws and policies that prevent age and gender discrimination in the workplace,” he said.
Rachel Mayanja, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, represented the Under-Secretary General Sha Zukang. “Today we pay tribute,” he said, adding that the celebration was a chance to “commemorate the wealth of knowledge and experience of older persons, which all too often remain unseen.”
The world’s population is ageing fast. By 2020 it is projected that there will be some 2 billion people in the world aged over 60. Yet currently fewer than 20% of people aged over 60 have access to pensions, leaving many trapped in poverty. It seems this radical demographic shift has caught the world’s policymakers off-guard, leaving older persons vulnerable to unequal treatment, isolation, chronic poverty, unemployment, violence and abuse, as well as limited access to justice. This is compounded by a lack of social and political mechanisms to ensure their inclusion in society.
Participants in the celebratory events spoke of the importance of putting life into years, whereby a longer life also means a healthier life. They pinpointed the right to a universal pension as key factor in improving the quality of life of older persons and their families.
Bridget Sleap from HelpAge International drew attention to the vital contribution older persons make to society. For example, in countries ravaged by HIV AIDS, grandmothers are often left as the sole carers of their orphaned grandchildren, forming “skipped-generation” households.
Many speakers expressed their concern over the continued exclusion of older men and women from policies and programmes, including the Millennium Development Goals, social development statistics, and society in general. “Older people continue to remain invisible,” denounced Jessica Frank López, Chairperson of the NGO Committee on Aging–New York.
Participants at both the main debate and the side event deplored the lack of data specific to older persons, which leaves them, and the problems they face, invisible in statistics. As a result, their needs remain difficult to identify and discrimination against them often goes unnoticed. It was also pointed out that, while close attention must be paid to their specific needs, older persons should not be systematically portrayed as needy and dependent, as they also have significant contributions to offer both professionally and socially.