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Bookends: The UN Takes on the Challenges of Aging

13 Aug

August 12 was one of those interesting and even ironic days at the UN.   On the one hand, there wasn’t much happening in either the North Lawn or Conference Building as many delegations and secretariat officials have wandered off for a bit of pre-September rest.   What WAS happening though was certainly worthy of attention by all policymakers – a morning session devoted to youth empowerment and an afternoon session of the Fourth Open Ended Working Group on Aging.

For GAPW, which has long been involved in youth development, a focus on the elderly is both timely and directly relevant to our mandate.   Given general increases in life expectancy based, in large parts of the world, on increased access to higher quality health care, there is little reason to believe that our seniors cannot be productive contributors to the growth and maintenance of human security frameworks – in both local and international contexts — long past any arbitrary retirement ages imposed by our organizations and agencies.

One question that we struggle with almost daily:  How do we promote the transition in leadership to younger persons without disenfranchising older persons who, in many cases, provided the conceptual and logistical guidance that built and maintained our organizations over many years?

This is clearly a more challenging problem than it might first appear. The ‘cult of youth’ that plagues much of western culture and which is, so far as we can tell, more a marketing ploy than an intentional policy choice, has limited value for the development of the fair and robust human security frameworks that we endeavor to promote.  Creating narrow peer frameworks in a world that offers virtually limitless options for meaningful participation, friendship and intimacy seems almost a cruel rebuke to those who have labored over many years to dismantle barriers of race, gender, sexual preference and, yes, age.

We support the movement, suggested by the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and many other States, to create a process leading to the adoption of universal standards of treatment for older persons.  At the same time, we resist any policy that inadvertently reinforces the ‘ghetto’ that too many older persons find themselves increasingly restricted to.   Perhaps even more than younger people, older citizens require human connection as much as fresh air and mobility assistance.   Services for the elderly matter – and States are right to make this more of a priority — but what matters more is cultures that promote cross-generational interaction that is open to and respectful of diverse lenses on how the world works, and how it can work more effectively.

The elderly are not a ‘population group’ as some delegations casually referred to them, but rather a diverse set of human longings and capacities seeking to remain relevant in the eyes of those with skills and energy to whom they have (perhaps not quickly or gracefully enough) given way.

The peaceful planet we all seek will be characterized in part by the welcome extended to new life and the gratitude extended to those at life’s end.   The elderly represent the direction towards which we are all headed.   An investment in older people – not only their material conditions but their ongoing, respectful connection – will yield great benefit.  After all, the time will come soon enough when we will take their places at the end of the life cycle.

Dr. Robert Zuber