According to the office of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, half of all American households occupied by 55 or older people have no money saved for retirement. Furthermore, one out of five seniors today is struggling to live on a maximum of $13,500 a year.
As far back as 2017, Time magazine was reporting on what it called a growing “dignity crisis” among American senior citizens. The threat to a dignified life is an inability to afford a decent home, healthcare, sundry basic needs and having the free time to live a life that is fulfilling and meaningful.
The dignity crisis is not just an American issue. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, also recently addressed the issue. He spoke specifically about what it takes for elderly people to “maintain dignity” as they navigate their later years with scant financial resources.
Guterres also mentioned ancillary issues that influence one’s sense of dignity, such as discrimination against seniors, loss of decision-making power, disparities in healthcare and social protection. The Secretary-General said the dignity crisis is “exacerbating existing human rights and protection gaps” among older populations around the world.
Rosa Kornfeld-Matte is a UN Independent Expert on the “enjoyment of human rights.” She describes something called “pervasive gerontophobia.” It’s the fear of all those things that come to be associated with aging, such as the degeneration of the body, death itself and the loss of mental acuity or physical skills. She said gerontophobia drives prejudices and discrimination against old people. This, in turn, results in a denial of basic human rights.
The dignity crisis among the elderly is a complex sociological problem that has been centuries in the making. As we all know, in most world cultures the elderly were once almost universally revered as the most honored and even sacred members of society. Exactly when and how that began to change is the subject of entire libraries.
In general, it can be said that the growing tendency of placing a supremely high priority on the productivity of an individual in a modern capitalist society eroded the societal value of people who became less productive and then nonproductive with age.
The challenge for the world today, then, is how do we support our senior citizens and ensure they have the economic accouterments they need and the dignity they have earned. It’s a multi-trillion dollar question as the senior citizen demographic expands rapidly in most modernized nations globally today.