Safeguarding the rights of older persons

The world is experiencing a paradigm shift toward population ageing that will touch each of us in fundamental ways – socially, economically and politically.

The former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described this development as ‘one of the dominant themes of the 21st century’ and its impact is now being felt around the world.

Asia is the most rapidly ageing region and by 2050 one billion older persons will reside there. Australia is also not immune to this trend and by the middle of this century the over 65s will represent close to 25 per cent of the total population.

In an Asian century characterised by rapid ageing, the inevitable disruption caused to existing industries and economies around the world will remain normative issues for decades to come.

For example, issues arising from the contraction of the working population are placing a greater strain on revenue for healthcare, aged care and the age pension for many countries. This exposes increasing numbers of older persons to variability in care, impacting quality of life and acting as a barrier to the realisation of their human rights.

Quality of life for older persons has been linked to an ability to maintain autonomy and independence. In this regard, the law operates as an important vehicle, either enabling or inhibiting autonomy and independence at different ages and conditions of health.

A contemporary example of the deprivation of the autonomy of older persons is through a form of elder abuse known as financial abuse.

An instrument which can enable financial abuse is a power of attorney, even though it is intended to promote legal autonomy and agency. However, the unregulated access to the financial resources of appointors can mean that vulnerable persons are easily subject to abuse. Overcoming this issue requires striking a balance between protecting older persons from exploitation and ensuring their rights and freedoms are facilitated.

Seeking justice for elder abuse is also complex. It can be difficult for older persons to substantiate claims leading to issues of under-reporting. The lack of specific laws dealing with this area and the lack of research around the subtle ways that abuse against older persons can manifest act as additional barriers to justice.

Current estimates place the prevalence of elder abuse at between 2–14 per cent of the population.

A recently commissioned national study undertaken at the request of the Federal Attorney-General will clarify these estimates in addition to improving our understanding of how and why elder abuse happens in an Australian context.

This study is intended to further the development of a national plan to combat elder abuse, which is a response to the findings of the 2017 Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into legal responses to elder abuse.

Further research is clearly needed as poor data has already hindered the productive development of a robust international protection framework for older persons for several decades through the United Nations system. However, safeguarding the rights of older persons requires much more than narrow responses to the manifestations of particular forms of abuse.

It requires an investment in identifying best-practice approaches to issues of population ageing through holistic intergovernmental and multistakeholder initiatives. This includes further engagement with the work of the United Nations Open-ended Working Group on Ageing and the World Health Organization, including the Age-Friendly Cities project.

Second, the success of a national plan is largely contingent on uniform adoption and integration by the states and territories. Some jurisdictions have already signalled that a national plan will not displace pre-existing local initiatives. This underscores the importance of governmental collaboration and a clearly communicated federal vision that incentivises uniformity and promotes equity.It is clear that progress towards safeguarding the rights of older persons is afoot. However, the historical pace of initiatives aimed at safeguarding the rights of older persons does not garner significant confidence, despite the burgeoning demographic demand for immediate and robust policy responses.