Taking Turns:  Promoting Elder Rights and Enhancing Inter-Generational Connection, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Jul

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While much of the UN community this past week was riveted on discussions on development financing taking place in Ethiopia, some highly suggestive events were taking place in New York.  Among the most significant of these was the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing, kindly and capably chaired by Argentina’s Mateo Estrémé.

Having been raised largely by elders (Aunts and grandparents) and having served in church communities thankfully punctuated by elders’ helpful presence, it is always heartwarming to see the UN place elder care near the core of their policy interests, whether it is this working group, the permanent forum on indigenous peoples, or in other venues.  In all of these settings there is much to lament regarding how too many elders are faring in this world, but also much to celebrate – so many lives with collected wisdom and skills, lives that remain more vital to community well-being than its younger residents often recognize.

As many readers are already aware, the world is currently grappling with ironic demographic twists – the dramatic “greying” of cultures such as Japan and many parts of Europe coupled with an explosion of young people in the “developing” world, allegedly the largest generation of youth in human history.  Added to this are elders whose life (and work) spans are on the rise as more and more youth worldwide grapple with uncertain economic options and uneven messaging from older leadership.  Apparently, youth participation in social and political life is essential to solving a range of global crises, and yet we elders (or soon to be) refuse to ease our grip on the levers of political and economic control or create viable spaces where the participation of others has real meaning.

That these inconsistencies create distance and even tensions between generations on a regular basis is not surprising.  That we are moving in a direction to create more inter-generational understanding and harmony is an assumption requiring some deeper reflection.

The Open Ended Working Group rarely engaged these inter-generational issues directly.  While rightly calling attention to some serious problems affecting older persons – increasing incidences of “elder abuse,” discrimination in housing and employment, a crumbling of social safety networks – the key issue impacting the Working Group was a debate on the necessity of creating a stand-alone convention to fully address the rights of older persons.

As anyone who follows UN affairs knows, this desire for a convention is hardly precedent setting.  To help focus policy concern on many themes and constituencies, and to establish a framework of binding attention and mandated response, the UN has adopted many “conventions” or “treaties.”

Do we need such a framework with respect to the elderly?   The Working Group chair, supported by Brazil, other states and most of the participating NGOs, maintained that a convention was needed to address a litany of legitimate “rights gaps.”  Others, especially states of the European Union (perhaps out of fear that they would be asked to pay for convention-related costs) preferred to modify existing human rights arrangements to more adequately accommodate the needs and interests of elders.

We eventually came down on the side of those favoring a convention, but not without caveats.

Certainly we recognize the following: that conventions do focus policy attention, existing human rights instruments have not been adequately modified, and instances of elder abuse and other violations occur with alarming frequency. But there remains some unease about all of this.  A rights based approach is rightfully core to the mission of the UN, but such an approach sometimes comes with a cost – the danger of isolation of rights holders from one another’s legitimate interests, as well as the increased competition for attention that is often felt in its wake.

The specter of elders becoming a rights-based “interest group” alongside other competing rights-based interests is not a place where most elders I have known from many cultures would wish to stand.  Perhaps I have unusual experiences with elderly persons. Perhaps some of my assumptions here are simply unreasonable, though they seem quite consistent with many elders I have known – those whose primary interest is in maintaining value and connection with younger persons from which the caregiving that so many of them have lavishly bestowed could be returned in kind.  Mostly, the elders I know want dignified lives to the end while urging dignity for others.  There is no desire to engage in any contest yielding winners and losers.

From this standpoint, it is legitimate to wonder to what degree a convention of the sort broadly advocated during the Working Group can adequately address what the Holy See and others referred to as our “throw away” culture with its tendency to denigrate the value of its “unproductive” members. Will a convention address the grave loss to our societies once our elderly become truly “invisible,” locked away in apartments or nursing homes, isolated from meaningful social contact, exploited or ignored by all but the rapidly diminishing number of persons worldwide who see elder care as part of their familial and community responsibility?

At the same time, this calls into question what younger generations seek most from their elders?  Surely not another set of economic competitors!   Surely more than bank accounts filled to overflow with their inheritance.   Surely not relationships predicated on keeping youth dependent or forcing them to accept self-interested interpretations of elders’ lives rather than setting them loose to grow and to heal accompanied by all the honesty – about ourselves and the world we have been privileged to manage – that we can share.

In the absence of such sharing and connection-building, I don’t see how this ends well for elders, convention or no.   More elderly claiming rights but not necessarily promoting the rights of others; more elderly pushing aside the responsibility to mentor next generations; more young people unfairly tuning out elders while accusing them of hoarding too much and sharing too little; more older persons scolding youth to take risks that these same persons weren’t willing to take themselves when they were younger. These are thorny issues of trust and connection facing too many of our cultures that the structure of a rights-based convention might help us locate the motivation to address, but is unlikely to resolve.

Thankfully, there were several examples that came across our office this week attesting to the enduring value of older persons who are comfortable in their skin and are able with kindness and attentiveness to help us all chart the best way forward. For instance, two colleagues of ours have launched a website, http://doinggoodsayswho.com  devoted to stories of persons (mostly indigenous in Guatemala) who have been on the receiving end of what is often well-intended but inattentive caregiving.  Connie Newton and Fran Early conducted hundreds of interviews with Guatemalans, NGOs and others on the often ignored cultural implications of humanitarian response, but it is their modest reflections on their own lifetimes of advocacy and service that are of the most enduring value.  They understand and communicate that what we “know” is less important to others than what we have learned, including about how to co-create contexts of dignified assistance to others.

Back at the UN this past week, Guatemala’s Amb. Rosenthal presided over discussions regarding a Secretary-General mandated review of peacebuilding that was noteworthy for its honest and even courageous assessments.  Rosenthal used the report as backdrop to help “shake up” the peacebuilding establishment, urging more focus on conflict prevention than on rebuilding after conflict has run its course, closer connections to the development community and the Security Council, peace processes that are “enabling rather than imposed.” It was in some ways the epitome of what younger persons should expect from elder statesmen and women – institutional memory deployed in the service of institutional reform, couched in an invitation to the assembled group to make peacebuilding into something more robust, reliable and attentive to what is to come rather than what has been.

Of course, we elders should confess the truth about ourselves as well as our institutions, including the truth that we have not always been the best of global stewards.   Our actions have at times belied our articulated values.  Our need to maintain control has sometimes undermined the sincerity of our invitations to youth participation.   We have tabled too many hopeful suggestions for healing our planet and then walked away from some of them when their degrees of difficulty became apparent.  We have largely forgotten, as Deputy Secretary General Eliasson noted at a recent “global governance” event, that being a “catalyst” for others to lead is a most valuable contribution once our own ‘turn’ at leadership begins to draw to a close.

At the closing session of the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing, Argentina’s Estrémé underscored “the heart and the will” of many to support elder rights. But to truly promote reliable, enduring contexts for elder care, we also need “heart and will” for a significant reboot in cultures that are slowly losing their inter-generational connectivity.  The legitimate rights of older persons can only be enhanced through elderly expressions of kindness, perspective and courage, as well as by a demonstrated commitment to serve as guide and catalyst for youthful aspiration as we enlarge spaces for their participation and eventual leadership.


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