UNITED NATIONS -- Human longevity is an accomplishment of modern society. It reflects improvements in science, public policy, and socioeconomic development.
But increased longevity does not necessarily mean improved quality of life. On the contrary, as people age, their well-being and social support tend to dwindle.
According to the UN's population division, by the year 2050 one in five people will be over the age of 60. But recent findings by the UN suggest that developing countries in particular are poorly prepared for greater numbers of people living longer, with little in the way of long-term care facilities and social and health workers specially trained for the needs of the elderly.
At a UN-sponsored forum on aging this week in New York, the central theme was giving older people the power to ensure their rights are defended. Over the course of the two-day "Empowerment in Aging" conference, speakers emphasized that, in many countries around the world, people over 60 have little if any legal and social protections, and virtually no political power.
Craig Mokhiber, of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that senior citizens in a number of UN member states are victims of multiple human rights violations.
"In many places of the world, indicators of racism, traditional indicators of sexism, are on the decline. Indicators of ageism are actually on the increase. Why? What's the problem here?" Mokhiber asks. "And I think the answer, to steal from the title, is power."
Sha Zukang, the head of the UN's department of economic and social affairs, said that while there is unanimous agreement within the UN to focus on human rights issues for the elderly, the issues faced by individual UN member states vary.
China, which is already home to the world's largest population of people over 60, is a notable example. Sha said the country's one-child policy is creating cataclysmic changes in Chinese families.
"Another consequence of an aging society is the tremendous change in family structure," Sha says. "With the fewer children, families cannot be relied upon to care for older family members in the same way as before."
A 2007 World Bank report titled "From Red to Gray" indicates similar population tendencies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Russia, the report says, is undergoing a massive demographic transition marked by a low birth rate and a rapidly aging population. Over the next two decades, Russia's population is expected to shrink by 12 percent, a drop of more than 17 million people.
Although life expectancy remains relatively low in Russia -- 74 for women and just 62 for men -- the percentage of elderly people is continuing to rise. By 2025, one in every five people in Russia will be over the age of 65.
A population that is simultaneously shrinking and aging poses two key challenges: sustaining economic growth with a shrinking labor supply and managing the rising costs associated with aging.
Josh Collet, the vice president of international affairs for AARP, a U.S. organization promoting the interests of people over 50, said the elderly in many countries suffer from isolation and low levels of social integration.
"Stigma and discrimination against the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, and so many others still flourishes and impedes true social inclusion. And poor governance, in so many countries, perpetuates barriers that deny older persons access to vital services like health care, and violates basic human rights."
Despite two major UN initiatives -- the World Summit For Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995 and the World Assembly on Aging in Madrid in 2002 -- there is no comprehensive international treaty or monitoring regime to protect elderly rights at the international level.