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Equality, Discrimination and Human  Rights: what they mean for older people using health services.

Equality, Discrimination and Human  Rights: what they mean for older people using health services.

The last 50 years have seen a dramatic change in the structure of the population. First seen in economically developed countries but now evident across all continents and countries the proportion of older people has grown. Despite  abundant evidence of this change the process of adaptation has been slow and patchy. Many governments have focused on demographic change as a burden and challenge to society rather than celebrating longer lives and generating creative responses to an ageing society. The burdens are described as: extra demands on health services,;the impact on pension provision; over-occupation of housing, the need for community support; having excessive wealth and damaging the life chances of younger people. This negative perception of older people in an ageing society is fertile ground for discrimination and unfair treatment of older people. That is why it is vital to draw on Equalities legislation and human rights principles to ensure that older people have full and fair access to health services.

Equalities Act 2010:  This Act protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society. The “protected “ characteristics  are:



Gender Reassignment

Marriage and Civil Partnership


Religion or belief


Sexual orientation


Prohibited Conduct can take the form of:

Direct Discrimination: Treating one person worse than another because of a protected   characteristic e.g. an employer does not tell an older person about a job opportunity because he thinks older people’s memories are worse. An employer does not offer an interview to a person with a disability because of their disability.

Indirect Discrimination: This occurs when a rule or policy or way of doing things has a worse impact on someone with a protected characteristic than on someone without one e.g. holding meetings in the evening which may discriminate against women with childcare responsibilities or carers of an older person or a person with a disability.

Harassment or victimisation of people with a protected characteristic.

Human Rights: The UK signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights in 1951 and passed its own Human Rights Act which became law in October 2000. Also the United nations adopted  18 principles for the advancement and protection of older people’s human rights. The principles are grouped under the headings of:






All public bodies in the UK are bound to operate in accordance with Human Rights legislation.

Key rights under the European Convention relating to older people are:

Article 2- Right to life

Article 3- Prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment

Article 5- Right to liberty

Article 6- Right to a fair hearing

Article8(1)- Right to respect for private and family life and home

Article 8(2)- Permitted restrictions on 8(1) rights to protect other people’s rights or the needs of the wider community

Article 9- Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Article 11- Freedom of association

Protocol 1,Article 1- Right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions

Protocol 1,Article 2- Right to education.

In the health field the Equalities and Human Rights legislation is important to older people  for the following reasons:

Older people use a wide variety of services– GPs; Dentists; Pharmacists; Opticians; Hospitals;

Emergency Treatment centres; Nursing Homes.

Health interventions have the potential to harm as well as benefit older people.

Older people may be overly deferential to health providers and not ask for relevant

information or question decisions; they may be reluctant to complain.

Some older people may be frail, have difficulties in communication, or need assistance

with personal needs (washing;eating; using the toilet). This makes them vulnerable.

Some older people may be disoriented by the hospital environment or very anxious.

Some staff may lack adequate training/education in the physiological, social and

psychological processes of ageing and operate with stereotypes of older people

present in the community and the media.

Older people may be ignorant of how to complain or sources of independent help.

Some professionals may make judgements/assessments on the basis of the older person’s

chronological rather than their biological age.

Some health staff may not allow enough time to explain the benefits/risks of treatments.

Who needs to be aware of these issues?

All staff involved in the treatment and care of older people




Managers and administrators

How do we know when provisions of the Equality Act or Human Rights legislation are  being breached?

Direct observation

Complaints by patients, relatives , carers


Data collection and analysis/research

Analysis of routines/procedures/staff culture

Whistle-blowing by staff

Internal Audit-Dignity in Care/Fundamentals of Care

Satisfaction Surveys

For support in making a complaint contact: South Glamorgan Community Health Council, Tel, 02920 750112. Email: [email protected].

For further materials on human rights go to website of British Institute of Human Rights.

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