Half of the world’s population are ageist and immediate action needs to be taken. That is according to the recent Global Report on Ageism by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably had a negative impact on the lives of many people around the world, although older people have been disproportionally affected. Beyond the increased health risks and mental health issues caused from extended periods of isolation or shielding, the pandemic has inflamed an already existing epidemic: ageism.
Released in March 2021, the Global Report found that ageism is prevalent in most aspects of society, including in the provision of health and social care, in the workplace, media and the legal system. While younger people were found to be negatively impacted by ageism too (specifically in relation to matters of employment, housing, health and politics) for older people, ageism can be particularly devastating, as it is associated with a shorter lifespan, poorer physical and mental health, and slower recovery from disability and cognitive decline. Ageism also increases their social isolation and loneliness (both of which are associated with serious health problems), puts them at greater risk of financial insecurity, restricts their ability to express their sexuality and may increase the risk of violence and abuse against older people.
While the Global Report suggests that New Zealand has a lower prevalence of ageist attitudes compared to other countries, it remains an insidious problem in our country. Following a visit to New Zealand in 2020, United Nations Investigator Rosa Kornfeld-Matte found older Kiwis were at risk from ageist attitudes, employment discrimination, lower incomes, material hardship, poor health, abuse and neglect, isolation and loneliness. In a report published in August of last year, the independent expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older people stated:
“New Zealand is undergoing an essential age-structural change, which requires urgent adequate action now to meet the ensuing challenges.”
“Reports of abuse and neglect of older persons are increasing. Older persons in New Zealand are also susceptible to economic and financial abuse, including by families impatient for their inheritance, and families forcing their relatives to move into rest homes.”
It’s not all doom and gloom though. The Global Report found that the COVID-19 pandemic had helped create many positive opportunities for older people. These included the creation of online information specially for older people, the development of online tools and support to help older people stay connected while in isolation, and the running of campaigns aimed to improve the understanding of mental health problems in older people. In some cases, the pandemic allowed retired front-line health care workers to return to work and opened-up other employment, volunteering, and caregiving opportunities.
“As countries seek to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we cannot let age-based stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination limit opportunities to secure the health, well-being and dignity of people everywhere,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “This report outlines the nature and scale of the problem but also offers solutions in the form of evidence-based interventions to end ageism at all stages.”
The report implores that “we all have a role to play in preventing and responding to ageism” and that it is imperative that we “change the narrative around age and ageing.” It recommends all governments and stakeholders enforce new and existing policies and legislation that address ageism, provide education to tackle misconceptions and stereotypes about certain age groups, and develop programmes that foster intergenerational contact.
At the end of last year, the United Nations declared 2021 – 2030 the Decade of Healthy Ageing, with the aim of ensuring the “the dignity and rights of every human being are respected and protected.” The Global Report – and the recommendations it has made – are certainly a step in the right direction.