COVID Deaths Demonstrate Why We Should Protect Older Adult Rights as Human Rights

We know the statistics: In the U.S., 75% of COVID-19 deaths have been people older than age 65, a group that makes up only 16.5% of our population. The impact of the pandemic continues to be a shock to our healthcare system, our long-term care system, and our economic system and will have long-lasting physical and mental health ramifications. Social isolation was one of the most dire consequences of the almost two years of lockdown for older adults, especially among those in residential communities. Some medical professionals suggest that there has been an increase in non-COVID–related deaths among older adults due to extended social isolation and loneliness during peak pandemic.

The end results are staggering—too many loved one’s lives lost and life expectancy in the U.S. decreased by nearly two years, according to the CDC. We must take the devastating lessons of the past two years and do better. Do better for our older loved ones. And do better for ourselves. For if we are so fortunate, we too will experience long life.

The response to the pandemic and the unnecessary losses, mainly among older adults, was a blunt illustration of how Americans tend to dismiss the value of life in old age. Early mandates to stay at home and directives related to how infections were addressed appeared to condone state-sanctioned age discrimination. Never mind the medical crisis standards of care, which though not often used, would have shunted older adults to the back of the line for treatment.

It will mandate a right to healthcare and mental health care, a right to vital medications, and a right to social services.

Why do some cultures, particularly ours, think of older adults as others? As less worthy? Simple answer: Ageism. And what, beyond efforts by groups such as the National Council on Aging, the American Society on Aging, LeadingAge and others to elevate older adult rights as human rights, can be done to cause a cultural shift in prioritizing our older loved ones, and, ultimately our future selves?

We have one timely answer: Support the legally binding United Nations Convention on the Rights of Older Persons. Twelve years ago, the U.N. convened the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWGA) to explore the need for such a convention. This April 11–14 (during ASA’s On Aging Conference), the OEWGA meets again and now is the time to move it forward. If ever there was a need, it is now.

What’s in the Convention?

Here is how the Convention on the Rights of Older Persons would work:

It will combat ageism by stating that it is morally and legally unacceptable and ratifying nation’s (or member states in U.N. parlance) must adopt laws to fight such discrimination, as well as foster independence and equity.

It will help to improve elders’ lives. Many other U.N. Conventions (for women’s rights, children’s rights, disability rights, etc.) have had such an impact on the populations addressed. Some specific ways would be through economic empowerment by mandating the right to an adequate standard of living, right to work, right to education. And, the right to access health and long-term care.

It will clarify ratifying member state’s responsibilities for older adults and strengthen existing laws with precise language. The convention will mandate the right to accessibility, right to information, right to judicial protection.

It will mandate a right to healthcare and mental health care, a right to vital medications, and a right to social services.

It will ensure dignity in that it will include the right to privacy, right to freedom from abuse and violence and right to physical security. Subgroups such as LGBTQ+ elders, older adults with disabilities and Indigenous elders will be covered and guaranteed the same rights.

It will help policymakers by presenting a framework for good policy on older adults, encourage data collection on elders and help governments to allocate resources. Ideally, this would inspire and justify more programming that supports our quality of life as we age.

But Do U.N. Conventions Work?

There has been some academic discussion as to whether U.N. Conventions have a measurable impact, especially considering that the United States rarely ratifies them, while not opposing them. We argue that yes, they do have an impact, even if it may take decades to come to fruition. It takes time for such mandates to be understood and applied, and for people to rally behind them in great enough numbers to evolve the way the world works.

We argue that yes, U.N. conventions do have an impact, even if it may take decades to come to fruition.

But looking at past conventions, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we find that it increased rates of inoculation and brought better education to millions of children. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, although it clearly has not eliminated such discrimination, has resulted in improvements in women’s living conditions and greater employment opportunities for women worldwide.

Perhaps a better question is: Will it draw positive attention to eradicating ageism and bring about more rights specific to older adults? Will it prevent such a lopsided impact upon elders during the next pandemic? Will older adults enjoy more rights than if such a treaty or convention had not been ratified? We’re certain the answer to those questions is yes.

What You Can Do About It

For more information on the Convention on the Human Rights Older Persons, visit; and Raise the issue of supporting a convention with your members of Congress. Attend an in-person or virtual session at ASA’s On Aging Conference with Cynthia Stuen, UN Main Representative on “The Pandemic’s Impact on Human Rights of Older Persons: Time for Corrective ACTION” on April 12 at 3 p.m. ET. 

Ramsey Alwin is president and CEO of the National Council on Aging. Peter Kaldes is CEO and president of the American Society on Aging. Katie Smith Sloan is president and CEO of LeadingAge and executive director of the Global Ageing Network.