UN Agencies Calling for Urgent Action to Combat Ageism, Say It’s Costing Economies Billions

421 views | Akanimo Sampson | March 21, 2021

United Nations agencies are calling for urgent action to combat ageism, saying it is costing economies billions of dollars. They also pointed out that negative stereotypes, prejudice and perceptions towards people based on their age, equally leads to poorer health and social isolation.

In a new report, the World Health Organization (WHO), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), and the UN human rights office (OHCHR), warned that key institutions – health, social and legal systems – are impacted by ageism.

Before now, UN human rights expert warned in June 2018 that older people are increasingly subject to financial abuse, in many cases by their own family members.

“Financial abuse of older persons is rampant but largely invisible, and the problem is expected to grow dramatically with the ageing of our societies”, said the UN-appointed independent expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, in a statement to mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15, 2018.

She said most abuse goes undetected, and it is impossible to say how big the problem is, as data is scarce because of under-reporting.

“Sadly, most abusers are family members”, said Ms. Kornfeld-Matte. “This is a particularly delicate matter”, she added, explaining that even experienced professionals have difficulty distinguishing an unwise but legitimate financial transaction, from an exploitative one that was the result of undue influence, duress, fraud, or a lack of informed consent.

Financial abuse reflects a pattern of behaviour rather than a single event, and occurs over a period of time.

She said that older people may even tacitly acknowledge it, or feel that the perpetrator has some entitlement to their assets.

“Some older people also have a desire to compensate those who provide them with care, affection, or attention”, she said.

Ms. Kornfeld-Matte urged older people to report cases of abuse to the authorities, even though they feel embarrassed or fear retaliation, including withdrawal of affection and care.

“One of the few ways to stop financial abuse of older people is to report it. If you suspect that someone you care about has been or is being abused, I can only urge you to speak up”, she said.

‘Ageist attitudes’ 

It is estimated that every second person in the world holds “moderately or highly ageist attitudes”.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said “ageism harms everyone – old and young. But often, it is so widespread and accepted – in our attitudes and in policies, laws and institutions – that we do not even recognize its detrimental effect on our dignity.”

In many workplaces, both older and younger adults are often disadvantaged. For older people, access to specialised training and education declining significantly with age, while ageism against younger people, manifests in areas such as health, housing and politics where their voices are often denied or dismissed.

Ms. Bachelet urged efforts to “fight ageism head-on, as a deep-rooted human rights violation”

COVID-19 exposes ageism 

According to the report, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled just how widespread ageism is: older and younger people have been stereotyped in public discourse and on social media. Age is often used as the sole criterion for access to medical care, lifesaving therapies and for physical isolation.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, underlined the need to root out such stereotypes and discrimination as the world emerges from the crisis.

“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”, Dr. Tedros said.

Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director, outlined the “overlapping discrimination” that older people face due to factors such as poverty, gender, living with disabilities or belonging to minority groups.

“Let us make this crisis a turning point in the way we see, treat and respond to older people, so that together we can build the world of health, well-being and dignity for all ages that we all want”, she urged.

Costing societies billions  

Aside from the impact on health and wellbeing ageism also costs billions of dollars to economies globally.

According to the report, a 2020 study in the United States of America showed that ageism in the form of negative age stereotypes and self-perceptions led to excess annual costs of US$63 billion for the eight most expensive health conditions, for those over the age of 60 for one year.

Similarly, in Australia, estimates suggest that if 5 per cent more people aged 55 or older were employed, there would be a positive impact of AUD$48 billion on the national economy annually.

The report also noted that data on the economic costs of ageism is limited, and underscored need for more research to better understand its economic impact, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.  

To combat ageism, the report highlighted the need for policies and laws that address ageism, educational activities that enhance empathy and dispel misconceptions, and inter-generational activities that reduce prejudice all help decrease ageism.

“All countries and stakeholders are encouraged to use evidence-based strategies, improve data collection and research and work together to build a movement to change how we think, feel and act towards age and ageing, and to advance progress on the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing”, the agencies urged.

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