Introduction: Focus on Elder Rights

Vol. 31 No. 2

By

Susan Ann Silverstein is a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation. She is the vice-chair of the Elder Rights Committee of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. Jan May, the director of AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly, is the co-chair of the committee.

We extend our thanks to Susan Ann Silverstein and Robyn S. Shapiro for their invaluable assistance as special issue editors.

Long before I was an advocate working on elder rights issues, I came upon a reference to age by psychologist James Hillman. I have never forgotten his words, although I can no longer remember the title of the book. When you disrespect an older person you dishonor the older person inside yourself who has not yet come into being. It was just that time in my life when I was learning to honor the younger person inside me and to accept her as the necessary prelude to who I was to become. Although it was beginning to feel pretty crowded in there, it was my first real awareness of the continuum of time that each human life encompasses.

From that moment on, I understood that the older driver ahead of me was trying to drive safely, not block traffic, and that the slow person in line was overcoming pain to pick out the change in her purse. Later, I read an interview with Hillman in which he described the “adventure of slowness” that is aging—a moment-to-moment awareness, the pleasure and accomplishment of doing something difficult, whether it be climbing a mountain or getting out of the bathtub. Face the Music and Dance: An Interview with Psychologist James Hillman, AARP MODERN MATURITY, Nov./Dec. 1999. Now, as an attorney working on behalf of people age fifty and older, I have the opportunity to protect the civil and human rights of those engaged in the adventure of aging.

As I compose this introduction, thousands of gay and lesbian couples from San Francisco to New Paltz are celebrating their marriages. It is clear to me that this historical moment is rooted not only in a desire for equal rights, but also the developing awareness of the needs of an aging population. Thus the movement for same sex marriage addresses equity in the arenas of economic security and healthcare, including social security retirement payments, pension benefits, long-term care, and the affordability of and access to healthcare. It also highlights the sociological issues of caretaking, healthcare decision making, and affordable, diverse, and attractive options for retirement living. Although the marriage issue currently gets the press, the gay and lesbian community has also contributed cutting-edge solutions to elder care, for example, by developing nursing home training programs and gay-friendly retirement communities.

I am honored to have edited this special issue of Human Rights on the changing face of elder rights. In keeping with the focus of the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section (IR&R), I have attempted to present a broad range of articles that encompass many of the individual rights issues most important to older people: housing, independence, employment, health, and long-term care. I am particularly pleased that we are featuring the work of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging and are honoring John H. Pickering as our elder rights hero.

Later this year, IR&R will explore the legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the law’s fortieth anniversary. It is thus fitting that this special issue on elder rights features articles about age discrimination in employment and addresses discrimination on the basis of age, disability, and race. As in so many segments of American society, the challenges of aging often fall disproportionately on African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color.

Many sources have noted widespread racial disparities in healthcare. The prevalence of age-related diseases such as diabetes varies by race, as do life expectancies. Dr. Bill Frist, a U.S. senator from Tennessee, deems these gaps as “unacceptable.” Robert Pear, Taking Spin Out of Report That Made Bad into Good, N.Y. TIMES, Feb. 22, 2004, at A16. Other forms of discrimination exist as well. Predatory lenders, who target the elderly in order to strip the equity from their homes through techniques such as exorbitant interest rates, hidden fees, and repeated refinancing and “flipping” of loans, strike minority homeowners disproportionately. As a nation, we must not only ensure that our elders are provided the means for a secure and healthful life, but we must also serve as the guardians of equity and fairness.

In 1991 the United Nations adopted the Proclamation on Aging, which included the organization’s Principles for Older Persons. These principles acknowledge that the cause of human rights cannot be complete without ensuring the rights of older persons. As the United Nations principles enunciate, we must use the legal system to work for the independence, participation, care, self-fulfillment and dignity of older people—and learn to honor not only the older person we will one day become, but the older people already with us in our families, our communities, our nation, and our world.

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