Friday, April 29, 2011

Observations from the First Session of the Open-ended Working Group

On April 18, I attended the meeting of the first working session of the Open-Ended Working Group at the United Nations Headquarters. Speakers and UN Delegations focused their attention on the current status of human rights of older persons around the world.

If you’ve not heard about the Open-ended Working Group, the General Assembly created this forum on December 21, 2010, with Resolution 65/1862 on December 21, 2010. UN delegations addressed elder rights in their countries and regions but also learned from each other and experts about the effectiveness of such protections. Later on, they will vote to decide whether a human rights instrument that is binding on countries is required to strengthen the protection of human rights of older persons.

After the session opened, national delegations that wanted to make a statement did so. As I listened, I began to understand where they currently stand on a convention to protect older persons’ rights. I recognized some trends from different regions. The European Union had negotiated its position earlier; it was presented by Hungary on behalf of the EU. Hungary, France, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark all pointed out their already existing protections that they claimed were already protecting the human rights for older persons. Denmark focussed on healthcare, saying that universal social protection – both in terms of cash transfers and social services – is a key component of the Danish welfare model. And the Danes said that their social service meets individual needs. I noticed that they failed to note the older people in our societies that are not in need of healthcare but do suffer from economic exclusion, isolation and discrimination. These individuals are more invisible than the ones who need direct medical help. I am not surprised by this, coming from a Scandinavian country myself. I know most responses are based on the individual. While this is often a positive approach, the downside is clear. If older person are not in direct need of help, they are easily forgotten.

The United Kingdom did not make a very long statement. The UK promotes active aging, with most of the responsibilities on the individual. Switzerland pointed out that they have had a long history of social services and protection for their older citizens. Poverty is not a problem in Switzerland. France was the first and only country that specifically addressed older women.

The only two nations that made it clear they wanted a convention were Argentina and Chile. Argentina emphasized that there is (1) no legal binding international protection for older persons, and that (2) the only other convention that directly refers to elder rights is the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Argentina also pointed out that the majority of older people do not have disabilities so the rights in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities cannot be applied to them.

The United States’ spokesperson shared a lot of its ongoing programs and protections for the older people. It appeared that the US does not see any major ongoing problems in the country. But, it recognized that older people around the world continue to experience discrimination and violations. The US recommended continuing discussion on aging rights.

From a less individual perspective, Syria, Qatar and Pakistan spoke. They cited the importance of the family as the foundation in society, instead of the individual, with a critical position toward the idea of universal human rights. This is when China’s approach became interesting. China put a lot of emphasis on the importance of the fact that countries are diverse in terms of economical and social conditions, as well as historical and cultural traditions.

China argued that Member states should address the aging issue on the basis of their national conditions and different development levels. I was not surprised by China’s statement. It seemed that China favored a regional solution. It is also important to keep in mind that China values its sovereignty. I believe that China will play a huge role in the outcome of this proposed convention.

On the whole, all countries claimed they were interested in participating in the upcoming debate regarding human rights for older persons. They all agreed that world citizens now face the fact that humans live longer and that pressure to meet the challenges of aging will become greater. The regional trends are visible, and as we can see, the world is divided at present about approaches to this new challenge. The Open-ended Working Group’s Chairman, H.E. Mr. Jorge Martin Aguello, (Ambassador of Argentina), was indeed correct when he said that this mission is ambitious. Meanwhile, as we wait for the second OEWG session that is coming up in August, NGOs must target those nations that seemed the least open to the idea of a convention and persuade them to find useful ways to protect the human rights for older persons.

Sanna Klemetti

Monday, April 18, 2011

News from the Open-Ended Working Group

The UN launched its long-awaited Open-Ended Working Group on Aging today at the UN. The Argentine Ambassador presided over the meeting. Some 17 Member States gave short speeches outlining their aging rights policies. Diplomats from Denmark, Sweden, China, Chile, South Korea, Canada, Switzerland, Argentina, Japan, the UK, Syria, Qatar, Pakistan, United States, and France offered short summaries of their perspectives.

What were their views about a human rights instrument? It’s too early to tell clearly. Most diplomats described programs that were working well in their nations and almost all acknowledged the anticipated upsurge in the proportion of older people in their population. Argentina and Chile spoke eloquently about the need for human rights for older persons. The Arabic-speaking countries stressed family supports for older persons. Unfortunately, no speaker from Africa was present.

On the NGO side, Bridget Sleap (HelpAge International) and Susan Somers (International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse) and Jane Barratt from the (Coalition to Strengthen Older Persons Rights) offered the perspective of their organizations. GAA is a member of the latter group. Jane laid out the long list of documents that the UN had already adopted but were not binding on nation states. The result? Slow progress. She urged the Open-Ended Working Group to press forward with a binding human rights instrument.

The OEWG meets again tomorrow. We’ll be back with more reports on what’s happening.

Susanne Paul for Global Action on Aging

Friday, April 15, 2011

Generations Unite for Music

Music plays an important part in our lives. From the moment we are born, we learn with the help of music. It’s been proven that young children develop through music. And today we even learn the alphabet by singing. Studies have shown that senior citizens can benefit from music as well. Music can give us a happier outlook on life. It can also help seniors with concentration and awareness, improve memory, and may also increase mobility and coordination.

On April 5th I visited an outreach concert at the Hamilton Madison City Hall in Manhattan. Founder and executive director of Concerts in Motion, Jennifer Finn, together with Suzuki Music teacher Jenny Pham, worked hard to make this event happen. Children from the ages 2 – 6 years old were invited to perform in a concert for the visitors at the center. In return, some seniors would perform for the children.

Jenny Pham and Jennifer Finn

Concerts in Motion, a non-profit organization, was founded in 2009. It provides private and group concerts performed by professional musicians alongside musically talented young people from New York City. I wanted to know how Jenny came up with the idea for Concerts in Motion. She told me that she used to work as a professional opera singer. Before an audition, she would often go to practice and perform the song at nursing homes. She discovered how much the audience appreciated her performances. Thanks to her enthusiastic audiences, Jenny decided to give up her career as a singer and founded Concerts in Motion. Today Concerts in Motion offers about 6 – 10 performances per week and serve elder patients at over 25 different agencies. Jennifer also told me what an impact live music has on people’s lives. Some think that the vibration created when live music is performed acts communicates with the listeners, sort of a life force that is not just heard, but also felt in the bodies of all who hear it. Jenny reminds her older listeners that they can experience the pleasure of their bodies, hearts and minds through the power of music.

The event got started when the children performed for the seniors. Children of all ages participated at different levels. Older children students played “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star,” on violins, accompanied by piano. The younger ones who are still learning the violin participated with violins made from paper. The concert included a few piano performances, a singing duo performing “America the Beautiful,” a recorder performance, and last. The music teachers performed a minuet.

Promising student


The senior choir began with “America the Beautiful,” in both Mandarin and English. The male choristers came next, singing “Edelweiss.” Two dance performances and a beautiful solo performance, in opera style, finished out the concert.

Conductor Mr. Jia Zhen Song practices with his choir ones per week at the Hamilton Madison City Hall. The City Hall Senior Center Chorus is very good and has attracted a number of New York City engagements to preform.

Dance performance

At concerts’ end, the audience made clear its enjoyment. I thought that the performers and the performances impacted the seniors. It’s time to figure out more ways to increase seniors’ access to relevant music experiences. For upcoming events, please visit Concerts in Motion’s website:

Sanna Klemetti

Friday, April 8, 2011

Getting Seniors on The World Wide Web - Part II

I spoke to Dr. Thomas Kamber, founder and executive director of the organization, Older Adults Technology Services (OATS). OATS teaches older adults and seniors how to use and be safe on the internet. It is the largest municipal technology program for senior citizens in the USA. Since the kick -off in 2004, OATS has trained over 5000 older adults and senior citizens at over 50 locations. Global Action on Aging thinks Thomas and OATS are doing something very important, helping older adults and seniors feel less alienated in today’s high-tech society.

It all began in 2003 when Thomas held a senior management position at nonprofit housing and technology organizations. He had always felt that none of the work he did made enough of a difference, until he met Pearl Scher. Thomas described Pearl Scher as a very active, wonderful and inspirational woman. Asked why she still at the age of 90 was working on so many projects, she answered, “I am working on my resume for heaven.” As a very active person Pearl realized quickly that if she wanted things to be done in her community she needed to learn how to use a computer. She asked if Thomas would teach her. Thomas accepted and discovered that the task was harder than he first had thought. After a while he and Pearl decided it would be a good idea for Pearl to continue learning by taking a community class. Surprisingly enough, Thomas discovered that computer and internet classes for seniors did not exist. This was when the idea for OATS was born.

Not only did Pearl help Thomas found OATS, her driving personality accomplished a lot of things for the seniors of New York City. One was to get a bus shelter on North End Avenue, so that the Hallmark’s seniors did not have to stand in the rain waiting for the bus. Pearl Scher passed away a couple of years ago.

I wanted to know what Thomas thinks is the biggest consequence for older adults and seniors not being able to use a computer and internet. He pointed out two interesting aspects. The first one is the feeling of alienation. Imagine watching a television show that mentions words and terms you don’t know. Words and items related to new technology are all over the place. Not having a clue what people are talking about can be very confusing and makes many seniors feel like aliens in their own society. Another important consequence Thomas mentioned was the financial aspect. Regarding older seniors and those who are housebound, online shopping can save a lot of money and time. For the younger seniors new technology is critical in almost any work environment. Another problem is that many time older adults and seniors feel a bit embarrassed about not knowing much about computers and internet, which makes them hesitate to ask for help. This brings me to another great website OATS created, Senior Planet.

Senior Planet was developed by OATS in 2006, as a grassroots digital community project. It serves as a community for older adults on the internet. The website focuses on resource exchange, an event calendar and senior blogs. The resource exchange exists for senior citizens to deal with their everyday problems; it helps seniors find information about different services, educational programs and senior-friendly entertainment. The event calendar informs readers about discounts, special events, and social happenings for older adults as well as senior blogs to help find like-minded people to discuss different topics and issues.

Right now the future looks bright for Thomas and OATS. The National Broadband Plan released by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) features OATS and Senior Planet as a model program promoting broadband adoption and inclusion by senior citizens. OATS just got a donation from the Federal Department of Commerce and NYC’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to open a support technology center for seniors later this year in New York City. OATS also has an inter-generational project called Hyper Linking the Generations; high school students teach older adults and seniors gain computer skills. This helps participants to overcome age stereotypes and communication between the generations. Thomas told me he always wanted to do something that would have a big impact on people’s lives. I think he has accomplished this.

The projects mentioned above are just a few things OATS is doing for our community. To find out more please go and visit their website for more information.

Thomas Kamber

Please have a look at:

Friday, April 1, 2011

Getting Seniors on The World Wide Web - Part I

Modern technology is something most of us take for granted. Internet is a big part of our everyday life. We pay our bills, read the latest news, book appointments and we even keep in touch with friends and family with the help of internet. But what happens when you are not apart of this phenomenon? As an older adult or a senior, new technology and the internet can be a source of anxiety and confusion. According to Older Adults Technology Services only 42% of the seniors in the US use the internet and less than 6 % of senior households has broadband in New York City. The consequence of this might be that many feel isolated and left behind. This barrier can even make it hard for seniors to participate in our society.

The good news is that there are people who are working really hard to change this. I was able to speak to Abby Stokes, the author of the handbook 'Is This Thing On?.’ This handbook introduces 'digital immigrants', as Abby likes to call people over the age of 40 who have no or very little experience with computers and internet. The book is written so that you can learn about a computer before you even have one. The book is linked to Abby's online website Abby & Me.

Abby Stokes

Abby & Me is designed like a launching pad for Abby’s book readers. It serves as an online help center and platform for different kinds of internet use. Abby & Me is a great site for a first time online visit, and when you feel ready to continue to surf the internet, the site offers a lot of useful links depending on what interests you have. The site includes an internet tutorial, with everything from how to send an email to how to run your own blog. You can even send your very first email through the site straight to Abby herself.

When creating the website Abby made sure that the site itself would be very easy to understand. A lot of websites are created in a very confusing way. Research led by Jakob Nielsen, regarding web usability for senior citizens, showed that during the year 2010 American seniors spent about $25 billion per year on online shopping. Another $15 billion were lost because of the poor usability on a lot of the shopping sites. Many seniors find websites too confusing and very hard to figure out. The reason for this is that a lot of websites are often created by young designers who just assume that everyone knows everything about computers and internet. To read the full report please visit:

On the question about what Abby thinks is the biggest consequence for seniors not being able to keep up with modern technology and internet, she said that it is the feeling of exclusion. Knowing that internet exists but not knowing how to be a part of it can feel very demoralizing and disempowering. Abby does think seniors still can retire and live a good life without being a part of the digital era, but she does believe that being a part of it makes a lot of seniors happier. Internet is a great thing if you are housebound, and it is a good way to stay in contact with friends and family.

When I asked Abby what inspired her to write 'Is This Thing On?’ she told me a 17 year old story about her mother not being able to change the clock in her car. The only thing she could do was to wait for Abby to come and change the clock for her. When her mother told her she was curious about computers and internet, Abby offered to help.

Abby also expressed her love for teaching. Every now and then Abby teaches free classes in New York City for seniors about computers and internet. Since the beginning Abby has had a lot of former students that use the internet on a daily regular basis. Seniors from all around the world write and thank her for writing the handbook and creating the website Abby& Me.

Sanna Klemetti