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Age Discrimination Endangers Human Rights for Young and Old Alike

Here is a riddle: "I don't have much hair, I don't have all my teeth, I have trouble walking, I need help dressing myself, I am often misunderstood, and I sometimes feel unwanted. Who am I?"

If you guessed "a toddler", you are correct. If you guessed "an elderly person", right again. These two groups have much in common, but there is one important difference. The frail elderly - and healthy seniors - have spokespersons to help make their needs known. Toddlers have no such help; when they try in the only ways they can to let us know their human rights are being violated, they are seldom taken seriously; instead they are often ridiculed or even punished.

The young and the old cannot manage all of their own physical care, and they need and deserve respectful help. My first awareness of the similarities between the very young and the very old took place in Ohio in 1982. My mother-in-law Anabel, my son Jason, and I were visiting Anabel's parents, then in their eighties. When it was time to leave, I found Jason's shoes, and I began to help him put them on. I happened to glance around the room, and smiled. There was Anabel, kneeling down, tying Grandpa's shoelaces.

But the similarities go beyond physical assistance. A few years ago, in my city, an eighty-year-old woman, suffering from osteoporosis and arthritis, was enjoying a rare excursion downtown. Painfully stooped over, she slowly made her way down the street. At first, she was ignored by the strangers she passed, and she felt lonely among the crowds. Finally, someone noticed her, and spoke; "Look at the hunchback!" Shocked, the woman said nothing. Later, when she arrived home, she burst into tears, and told the story to her son. She then added, wistfully, "They used to say I was pretty."

At an outdoor gathering, I once overheard a young mother scold her one-year-old: "Put on a shirt, you look stupid!"

In a grocery store, a four-year-old boy tried, unsuccessfully, to lift a heavy item his father had just selected. Instead of helping his son, he became angry, and swore at him.

The young and the old are often criticized for things beyond their control, and they deserve our understanding. The elderly should not be blamed for their frailty and lost youth, nor should children be blamed for things they have not yet learned to do. But the similarities in the way society treats these two groups go deeper still.

Both groups find their needs shoved aside when they interfere with the needs of others. Seniors battle age discrimination in the workplace, while families battle "no children allowed" policies in housing. When both children and the elderly voice their opinions, they often find it difficult to get our attention. It is as though children are expected to "stay in their place" - at home, at school, or in day care, while the elderly are expected to "fade away" gracefully from the rest of society. When they are not in "their place" but happen to be present in a group of mixed ages, both children and the elderly are expected to be quiet, well-behaved, and non-demanding. There is something curious going on here; after all, we have all been children in the past, and - if we are fortunate - will also be elderly in the future.

Programs for children, and those for seniors, naturally reflect these negative attitudes, and tend to meet the needs of the institutions that isolate these groups, overlooking their personal needs. More funds are available for institutional care for the elderly than for the type of care that could enable them to remain at home - as most would wish. Similarly, legislators promise more day care programs, rather than offering funding or tax incentives for mothers that could allow babies and toddlers to remain at home, as they would wish.

Both young and old clearly deserve more choices in where and how they spend their time, and they should not be so completely at the mercy of others' decisions. Still, the need for expanded choices for seniors is more acceptable in our society than is the concept of more freedom for children, who are seen as somehow different in nature than the rest of humanity, as property rather than as human beings deserving of human rights.

In response to those who fear the expansion of "children's rights", the educator John Holt replied:

"If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be very wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued. Of course, if we saw someone walking toward an open manhole or some other grave danger, we would shout, 'Look out!' In this spirit we often and rightly intervene in the lives of children.

"But this has almost nothing to do with 'adult authority', some kind of general right and duty to tell children what to do. It would be equally right and natural if an eight-year-old I know, already an expert skier, should tell some adult that a certain trail was probably too difficult for him, and that he should stay off it. What is speaking here is not the authority of age, but the authority of greater experience and understanding, which does not necessarily have anything to do with age."

It is not just eight-year-old skiers who are expert enough about a matter to give us advice; a newborn refusing a bottle is advising us - in the only way available to her - of the superiority of breast­feeding; a baby who cries when "put down" is an authority on the critical importance of bonding through touch; a child who cries in the night is communicating the wisdom of centuries of families sleeping together.

We need to free ourselves from age stereotypes, so that we can begin to appreciate and respect others of all ages. But until we reach that point, legislation and official spokespersons will be needed for young and old alike.

Rejection and mistrust of children and seniors is especially prevalent in North America; in other cultures, are more warmly welcomed and accepted. In Scandinavia, government subsidies allow the elderly to remain at home, where they receive free meals, transportation, and care; for children there are laws requiring the initiation of breast­feeding, prohibiting spanking and bullying, and even regulating the design of new buildings from a child's point of view. Norway has a "Commissioner for Children", an independent, public spokesperson who protects children's interests - the first in the world.

These successful programs give us hope and set examples for the work that lies ahead. We have begun the process of legislating the rights of senior citizens, and more needs to be done. We also need to consider the rights of children, who cannot speak for themselves, and who are therefore the most vulnerable group in our society.

As Dr. Seuss reminds us, "A person's a person, no matter how small" - or how frail. We should treat one another with love and respect, free from biases and expectations based on age. When young and old are valued for their ageless spirit within, we will all live more freely and joyfully.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.