11th Session of the
Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing
on Agenda Item 5, "Measures to enhance the promotion and protection of the human rights and dignity of older persons"
United Nations Headquarters, 29 March – 1 April, 2021
The Holy See is grateful to Your Excellency and the Bureau of the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing for all its efforts in advance of this 11th session and is pleased to participate in the general discussion.
On the dignity and human rights on the elderly
Our discussions in this working group seek to contribute to strengthening the protection of the human rights of older persons. If the enjoyment of universally recognized human rights is to mean something, it must be founded on human dignity. This dignity, however, is often undermined and rejected whenever persons “are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when poor or disabled, ‘not yet useful’ like the unborn, or ‘no longer needed’ like the elderly.” The most effective way to weaken the struggle for justice, Pope Francis warns us, is to empty great words of their meaning. This clearly takes place when the elderly are thrown aside, even when doing so is justified by a distorted notion of “human rights.” We need, rather, an approach in which the inherent value of the elderly is recognized, protected, cherished and advanced. The Holy See strongly believes that “those who make room for the elderly make room for life!”
On the two focus areas
In the labour market and the world of work, many elderly continue to face unjust age discrimination that undermines the dignity both of their work and of them as workers. This comes to the fore in all aspects of work, including application and hiring processes, the work experience itself, and opportunities after retirement. The elderly worker has wisdom, experience and skills that should not be cast aside.
Responses to the problems the elderly face in employment, however, should be carefully crafted so as not to have inadvertent and adverse effects. Addressing employment challenges of the older generations should not be framed as creating competition with other age groups. Placing too much emphasis on continued workforce participation should not suggest that retirement is a failure or that one’s value depends on productivity. Focusing only on paid work risks trivializing the irreplaceable unpaid work in the family so often done by elderly. Such concrete contributions to the family — as well as to society through elderly volunteers — deserve much greater recognition. Many States already offer very concrete and practical ways for the elderly to engage in society, including through cultural, social and leisure programmes; where possible, such measures should be expanded.
Providing the elderly with access to justice involves both long-standing and emerging challenges. Many elderly men and women encounter obstacles when it comes to accessing court buildings, to legal aid, to affordable and intelligible assistance, and to an increasingly digital legal environment, something the pandemic has highlighted. Care must be taken to ensure that the digital divide between old and young, as well as disparities in education and resources that impede access to legal services more broadly, do not increase with age.
For those elderly who need more extensive support, including in decision-making, it is vital that the real needs and dignity of older men and women are properly taken into account. This applies to access to social protection and care programs, to healthcare, to the right to give informed consent, and to guardianship arrangements. Furthermore, effective measures to prevent and address violence, abuse, discrimination, and neglect must be in place.
On COVID-19 and the elderly
The elderly comprise the largest portion of lives lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During “the first wave of the pandemic a significant number of COVID-19 deaths occurred in institutions for the elderly, places that should have protected this ‘most fragile part of society,’ and where instead death struck disproportionately.”
The Holy See, therefore, wishes to encourage consideration of the dangers of an uncritical and inordinate institutionalization of the elderly. Relegating the elderly, especially the most vulnerable, ‘unbefriended’ and most alone, to institutions that are unable adequately to care for all their needs – yet “proposed as the only possible solution to look after them” exposes many elderly persons to neglect, abuse, violence and, in the case of the pandemic, to increased risk of violations of the rights to life and health. More consideration should be given to guaranteeing the best possible continuum of care, preserving, as far as possible, the bonds of older persons with loved ones and with a familiar environment.
In conclusion, the Holy See assures all participants at this 11th session of its continued engagement with the Open-Ended Working Group.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
 Pope Francis, Address to the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See for the traditional exchange of New Year greetings, 11 January 2016.
 Cf. Pope Francis, Encyclical letter on fraternity and social friendship, Fratelli tutti, n. 14.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Visit to the Community of Sant’Egidio’s Home for the Elderly “Viva Gli Anziani”, 12 November 2012.
 Cf. Pope Francis, Encyclical letter on fraternity and social friendship, Fratelli tutti, n. 98.
 Pontifical Academy for Life, Old age: our future. The elderly after the pandemic, p. 2.