By Carol Goar, Toronto Star, August 15, 2011
The Law Commission of Ontario is attempting to (turn) ageism into an injustice that can be recognized, documented and remedied.
Last week it published a draft report designed to help lawmakers identify and take action against policies and practices that discriminate on the basis of age. Until November, it will hold public consultations for the next three months to make sure nothing is missing or misconceived. A final draft will be released in early 2012.
“With the aging of Canada’s population, it is increasingly important that we have sound legal and policy approaches to issues affecting older Canadians,” said Patricia Hughes, executive director of the provincial advisory agency. “While pioneering work has been done in this area, there has not yet been a comprehensive, coherent and principled approach developed for this area of the law.”
The carefully researched policy paper won’t win over skeptics. But it will address the concern that ageism is too amorphous to be judged or prevented.
It begins by pointing out both Canada’s Charter of Rights and the Ontario Human Rights Code explicitly prohibit age-based discrimination. It then shows the gap between the legislation and the reality: Caregivers routinely assume seniors can’t make their own decisions. Policymakers don’t bother to consult them on issues affecting them. Health-care and social service providers withhold supports to which are entitled. People patronize them, ignore them or exclude them the life of the community.
To move toward equality for older Canadians, the commission says, all laws should reflect these principles:
• Respect for the dignity of the individual.
• The presumption of ability, not disability.
• The right to be included in community affairs.
• Freedom from abuse or exploitation.
For laws already on the books, it offers policymakers a series of tests to apply: Are they rooted in stereotypes or shaped by unfair assumptions? Are they based on outdated medical knowledge or societal perceptions? Do they contain age-based eligibility criteria that ignore an individual’s actual ability? Do they authorize public officials to take away the autonomy of older adults without their input or consent? Do they sideswipe older people while attempting to accomplish other purposes?
If so they need to be amended or replaced.
There will be some who will argue that this is more of the "nanny state" moving into another "care-taking" area where it is neither wanted nor needed. And they will be wrong.
There is clearly a "youth bias" to the current society that, whether conscious or not, tends to render seniors irrelevant, redundant and perhaps even marginalized. Occasionally, one reads of a judge or a writer, or perhaps even a political leader who has served to an unexpectedly old age. And yet, these are exceptions, certainly not the norm.
Legislating attitudes is difficult and while a "code" or a set a guidelines can raise consciousness, it will not necessarily change attitudes.
We need a body of data that indicates the contribution seniors are making to various organizations, including corporations dedicated to generating dividends for their shareholders, in order to demonstrate the changing facts of both longer lives and longer successful working lives. And we need to educate those in human resources that just because we have either lost most of our hair, or it has turned grey, does not mean that the brain cells have ceased to function. We also need seniors to take to the public podiums to demonstrate the kind of thinking and visioning that is going on among those cells. And we need seniors who witness abuse to confront those committing the offense.
However, what we do not need is a "seniors police" who give out misdemeanour violations as a healthy way to curb abuse.
This is a long and a sensitive process that needs the input of seniors themselves.
It needs their leaven, their experience and their moderation in order to develop both policy and guidelines that seek to bring into focus the change in attitudes that is needed and expected.
Culturally, we also need to close the gap that exists in the minds of many younger people, that seniors are merely candidates for the warehouses of long-term care facilities. We need to develop strategies that bring young and old together in civic projects, in political parties, in church groups and in schools.
We need to develop a culture where both young and old can and do find opportunity to get to know each other.