By Lisa Nerenberg
At a time when America's values are being ruthlessly challenged and aggressively defended, it seems like the perfect time to launch CEJC's National Elder Justice Academy. Our goals for the Academy, which is supported by a generous grant from the Huguette Clark Family Fund for Protection of Elders, are to sharpen advocates' tactical skills, provide information and promising models, and share ideas. Beyond that, we hope to start a national dialogue about elder justice—what it is and why we need it.
I like to think of elder justice as the interface between aging policy, elder abuse prevention, and human rights. Those of us who come from the elder abuse field have largely appropriated the term, defining it narrowly as the right to live free from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. That's how it's used in the Elder Justice Act and other policies and programs.
But elder justice isn't just about abuse.
I like to think of elder justice as the interface between aging policy, elder abuse prevention, and human rights.
For over 8 decades, advocates for older people have championed human rights and social justice through programs like Medicare and Social Security, which evened the playing field between young and old with respect to health and wealth. The Older Americans Act promotes independence, engagement, and parity through programs that provide food, transportation, recreation, jobs, volunteer opportunities, legal assistance, and advocacy, targeting those in greatest need. They have combated ageism and discrimination in the workplace, housing, and health care.
Elder justice is all these things, yet few advocates for older adults see themselves as human rights activists. There are notable exceptions. Robert Butler, who coined the term ageism, saw ageism as a civil rights matter akin to racism and sexism. So did the Gray Panthers, whose members marched alongside advocates for women, LGBTs, and anti-war activists during the 1970s.
For the most part though, we in the aging and abuse prevention networks are viewed (and view ourselves) apart from other human rights groups. This disconnect may explain why we have failed to engage older people, particularly those who identify more closely with constituencies based on race, gender, class, or religion.
We hope to change that. CEJC and our partners recognize that elder justice applies to all older people. We don't see ageism in competition with other forms of discrimination but rather, as an intensifier and compounder of injustices experienced over the lifespan. We know that those at risk for abuse, neglect, and exploitation include the poor, elders of color, older immigrants, LGBT elders, the incarcerated, and the homeless.
Elder justice requires that we apply a social justice lens and metrics like fairness and parity to policy affecting older people. For example, as Congress sets its sights on Medicare and Social Security, raising the programs' eligibility age may seem like an easy fix to sustain the programs. Sure, many older people are living longer, healthier lives. But is raising the eligibility age fair considering the dramatic disparities in life expectancy that exist between rich and poor? Will raising the age expose already vulnerable people to greater risk for poverty, illness, abuse, neglect, exploitation, exclusion, hunger, homelessness, and insecurity?
Understanding social justice principles, applying them to our work, and partnering with social justice advocates offers tremendous benefits. It enriches our understanding of older people's life experiences and struggles. It offers strategies and tools to guide us and partnerships that can amplify our voice. And social justice is a message that Americans understand.
In turn, the aging and abuse prevention networks can play a vital role in advancing human rights. Our accomplishments have benefited all Americans. We have helped to make the justice system more "elder friendly" and responsive. We understand the cumulative effects of inequality on life expectancy, disability, quality of life, and susceptibility to abuse, neglect, and exploitation over the life course. We focus on preserving the autonomy of people with cognitive impairments, which has given us insights that can inform and enrich the social justice movement.
These are just some of the issues we plan to tackle through our blog, website, webinars, materials, and events. We will focus on elder justice writ large at the local, state, national, and international levels, highlighting ties that bind us geographically and ideologically. We will showcase promising policies and programs, sample materials, strategies, and tools; and introduce leaders and unsung heroes who are innovating and inspiring.
But most of all, we want to begin a dialogue that reflects our diversity, highlights our differences, and reinforces our common goal of justice for older people and those who aspire to live long, healthy lives.
We don't see ageism in competition with other forms of discrimination but rather, as an intensifier and compounder of injustices experienced over the lifespan.
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