Over 962 million people globally are aged 60 and above, and by 2050 this number is expected to rise to over 2 billion, of which a quarter will be aged 80+. Older people’s rights are currently protected to an extent by various international conventions, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. And yet, we know that older people still face daily barriers and age-based discrimination.
At the end of this month, the UN’s Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing will meet at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Over 400 international NGOs and service providers are calling for a specific rights-based Convention for Older People, which would push Governments to make legal and social changes, and improve services, to meet the needs of older people.
Older people in Eastern Europe: Unprotected and Marginalised
The experiences of World Jewish Relief and our partner organisations in Eastern Europe highlight the daily challenges faced by older people, from being unable to afford basic food and medicines, living in poorly maintained and inadequate housing, to lacking access to even the most basic healthcare.
In Ukraine older people have become so desperate that they have taken to the streets, joining protests across the country against so-called ‘fuel poverty’, caused by skyrocketing utility costs over recent months. Winter utility bills were three times that of the summer, and with the average pension in Ukraine hovering at around £90 per month it is no wonder that people have taken to protesting. Shockingly, almost 70% of Ukraine’s 11 million older people receive a pension which is below the actual cost of living.
The Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine stated:
There has been an increase in the number of people experiencing fuel poverty…in particular, in villages and settlements, and a significant part of the population lives in residences that are unheated and unlit during winter.
Our partner, the Jewish Ukrainian Social Initiative, commented:
The welfare of the vast majority of Ukrainians over 65 is at risk due to lack of financial means. Many older people are still supporting their children and grandchildren, who are often no less vulnerable than themselves. State social services are often outdated…and housing conditions are mostly unsatisfactory, unsafe, and in need improvement and renovation.
In Moldova, almost 25% of people live below the poverty line and 11% of citizens survive on less than £70 per month. Our Moldovan partner commented:
In rural areas, one in three people live in absolute poverty. Most often they are pensioners.
Covid-19 and Health Inequality
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light massive inequalities in healthcare provision. Older people are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to accessing basic healthcare, despite being among the most vulnerable and most at-risk of serious Covid-19 complications.
This has been felt acutely in Belarus, a country struggling with political turmoil on top of the Covid-19 crisis. A colleague in Minsk, Belarus, commented:
Access to medical services for older people since the start of the pandemic has become even more restricted. Firstly, where possible, all non-urgent medical procedures have been cancelled. Hospitals are full, many are being reclassified as Covid-19 wards and hospitals only. Secondly, emergency services are extremely stretched. If the person’s condition isn’t critical, ambulances are unlikely to come, as they are simply overwhelmed by the number of calls. Doctors are only making home visits in extreme circumstances.
Furthermore, the Covid-19 vaccine is still a long way from being accessible to older people. In Belarus the vaccine is being offered first to frontline workers aged 18-45, unlike most countries which have started by vaccinating older people. Many have commented that this approach is discriminatory, disadvantaging older people who are most at risk of serious complications from Covid-19.
Also extremely concerning is the lack of regulation over vaccine-related information in the region’s news, which is causing a spike in vaccine hesitancy. With only 1 in 6 older people in Ukraine active online, most are unable to access other sources of information and make an informed decision. This situation is worsened by a general mistrust in healthcare systems due to chronic corruption and underfunding.
We continue to support our partner organisations to improve their safeguarding policies, to protect vulnerable older people from abuse. And we strive to give older people a voice and an active role, empowering them to participate and volunteer in our programmes and share feedback on the services that we provide.
We recognise that at every level older people’s rights must be protected. Everyone, including national Governments, legislators, NGOs and individuals, has a role to play in safeguarding older people’s rights to economic security, participation in society, and healthcare, social care and decent housing. We join over 400 NGOs and service providers in supporting calls for a specific convention to protect the rights of older people.