World Assembly on Ageing
The World Assembly on Ageing, held in Vienna, Austria, between July 26 and August 06, 1982, was the first international convention at the United Nations (UN) regarding the issue of aging. It resulted in the adoption of the Vienna International Plan of Action by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) (See “Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing”). It was followed by the Second World Assembly on Ageing in Madrid, Spain, in 2002.
Secretary-General of the United Nations Javier Pérez de Cuéllar opened the World Assembly on Ageing in 1982 by proclaiming, “Of all the major UN conferences held in recent years, the World Assembly on Ageing is the one whose subject matter intimately touches upon the present or future of every man, woman and child who lives a normal span of life on this earth” (Letzig 1983). The UNGA had called for the conference 4 years earlier when in 1978 it passed Resolution 33/52. Representatives of 124 UN member states and more than 250 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) attended the assembly, which was immediately recognized as being of major importance. Two Canadian gerontologists went as far as to say, “The World Assembly on Ageing held in Vienna in 1982 is a significant event in the social history of our globe. The convening of this World Assembly might be thought of as the official recognition that population aging is a worldwide phenomenon” (Neysmith and Edwardh 1983, 125).
Indeed, the drafters of the Assembly noted in the preamble to the Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing, the primary document that resulted from the Assembly, that it was convened in recognition of “the need to call worldwide attention to the serious problems besetting a growing portion of the populations of the world” (UN 1983, 1). The primary motivation behind holding the Assembly was “to launch an international action programme aimed at guaranteeing economic and social security to older persons, as well as opportunities to contribute to national development” (UN 1983, 1).
The World Assembly was a response to serious demographic changes occurring across the globe throughout the twentieth century. Medical advances, improvements in nutrition, broader access to health care, and other factors increased longevity around the world and were leading to older populations. At the same time, birth rates in many places were declining, meaning there would inevitably be fewer young people to care for, and fund social services for, older people. The Assembly came about in recognition that these demographic changes would generate significant impacts on society in a variety of areas. “The achievement of sustained development requires that a proper balance be preserved between social, economic and environmental factors and changes in population growth distribution and structure. Countries should recognize and take into account their demographic trends and changes in the structure of their populations in order to optimize their development” the Plan of Action declares (UN 1983, 13).
In order to address the perceived problems of aging, five objectives were enumerated in the Plan of Action. The first was to “Further national and international understanding of the economic, social and cultural implications for the processes of development of the aging of the population.” The second was to “Promote national and international understanding of the humanitarian and developmental issues related to aging.” The third objective was to “Propose and stimulate action-oriented policies and programmes aimed at guaranteeing social and economic security for the elderly, as well as providing opportunities for them to contribute to, and share in the benefits of, development.” The fourth goal was to “Present policy alternatives and options consistent with national values and goals and with internationally recognized principles with regard to the aging of the population and the needs of the elderly.” The final goal was to “Encourage the development of appropriate education, training and research to respond to the aging of the world’s population and to foster an international exchange of skills and knowledge in this area” (UN 1983, 3). In order to meet these objectives, the plan offered 62 recommendations pertaining to those objectives. The plan itself was adopted by the Assembly and the later that same year by the UNGA in Resolution 37/51.
Second World Assembly
Twenty years after the initial World Assembly was held, the Second World Assembly on Ageing took place. From April 8 to 12, 2002, the Assembly convened in Madrid, Spain, to again consider the problems facing older people as well as the impacts of continued demographic change as societies around the world continued to age (See “Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing”). Representatives from more than 160 member states attended. In addition to the main assembly, there was a convention held in Valencia to focus on research and another comprised of NGOs.
This assembly was widely viewed as being of major significance (Knodel and Ofstedal 2003). It called “for changes in attitudes, policies and practices at all levels in all sectors so that the enormous potential of aging in the twenty-first century may be fulfilled” (UN 2002b, 10), and it resulted in the production of two documents, a Political Declaration (UN 2002b) and the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) (UN 2002a). Both documents were adopted by consensus. These documents prioritized three key areas: development, health care, and supportive environments for older people. There was also a new focus on elder abuse and human rights. Elder abuse had not been part of the agenda during the first assembly at all, but considerable research conducted in the years since brought it to prominence as a critical issue of concern (Aziz 2002).
The participants of the Second Assembly recognized and reaffirmed the accomplishments and recommendations of the original assembly and offered more than 100 recommendations of their own in the Political Declaration and the MIPAA. It also offered suggested implementation and follow-up procedures at both the national and international levels and called for periodic, systematic reviews of its implementation. It also urged continued research and advancement of knowledge and experience.
Future Directions of Research
Future research should seek new and more effective ways to advance the goals of the World Assemblies on Ageing and their products, the Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing and the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. Though important stepping-stones in promoting the needs of older adults, the World Assemblies did not end the challenges associated with aging populations. Paul Harpur criticizes the Madrid Plan for not having sufficient noncompliance and enforcement mechanisms. He argues further that the recommendations developed in the Madrid Plan should be enshrined as rights for the aged (Harpur 2016). Researchers Carole Cox and Manoj Pardasani also point out that the implementation of the Madrid Plan’s recommendations is not binding and should be enshrined as rights (2017). Existing research on the experiences of particular countries, such as that conducted by Kendig et al. (2013) in Australia, should be expanded to other countries.
The two World Assemblies on Ageing, the first held in Vienna in 1982 and the second in Madrid in 2002, aimed to address major demographic trends faced by aging societies as well as the individual needs of older people around the world. They recognized not only the problems that aging posed but also the enormous potential of older people contributing to the development and advancement of their societies. Neysmith and Edwardh note that the assembly in 1982 “was the first large forum for bringing together representatives from the developed and developing worlds to exchange experiences, needs, and approaches to issues around population aging” (1983, 125).
The recommendations offered by the two plans of action that emerged from the assemblies remain relevant as aging continues to be a significant demographic trend across the world. In a 2011 follow-up to the Second World Assembly on Ageing, the UN noted, “There is a global recognition of the particular human rights challenges older persons face. As the population continues to age and larger numbers of older persons are found in low- and middle-income countries, some of these challenges are bound to become more acute” (UN 2011, 77). It is hoped that current and future generations will be able to rely upon both the Vienna International Plan of Action and the Madrid International Plan of Action, as well as new knowledge brought about by continued research, to meet those challenges.Even beyond the concrete recommendations proposed by the plans of action, the assemblies served the broader purposes of raising awareness of the potential problems of aging and demonstrating the need to address them. As gerontologist Shah Ebrahim has noted, “the importance of international meetings is in the symbolism and hope they provide to those who are attempting, often in small ways, to make improvements to the care of older people, to advocate the need for politicians to take an interest, and as a rallying call to older people themselves…” (2002, 717). The two World Assemblies on Ageing brought the issue of aging to international attention and began the process of recognizing problems and potential gains, the sharing of best practices, and the exchange of knowledge and experience.
- Aziz S (2002) Summary report on the United Nations second world assembly on ageing. The International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. http://www.inpea.net/images/WAA02-meeting-report.pdf. Accessed 2 Dec 2018
- Harpur P (2016) Old age is not just impairment: the CRPD and the need for a convention on older persons. U Pa J Int’l L 37:1027. https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/jil/vol37/iss3/4. Accessed 16 Jun 2019Google Scholar
- Letzig L (1983) World view on aging. Global action on aging website. http://globalag.igc.org/waa2/history/response.htm. Accessed 2 Dec 2018
- UN (United Nations) (1983) Vienna international plan of Action on Aging. http://www.un.org/es/globalissues/ageing/docs/vipaa.pdf. Accessed 25 Nov 2018
- UN (United Nations) (2002a) Madrid international plan of action on ageing, 2002. https://www.un.org/development/desa/ageing/madrid-plan-of-action-and-its-implementation.html. Accessed 1 Dec 2018
- UN (United Nations) (2002b) Political declaration. http://www.un-documents.net/ac197-9.htm. Accessed 1 Dec 2018
- UN (United Nations) (2011) Follow-up to the second world assembly on ageing: report of the secretary-general. A/66/173, 22 July 2011Google Scholar