In 2008, the Law Commission of Ontario’s (LCO) Board of Governors approved a multi-year project to develop a coherent framework for the law as it affects older persons. The aim of this project is not to recommend specific reforms to particular laws affecting older persons, although certainly law reform is needed in many areas, but to articulate a set of principles and questions, rooted in the lived experiences of older adults, that may form the basis of a coherent analytical framework for this large, diverse and complex area of the law. The ultimate aim of this project is to build on work that has already been done to develop a sound basis for evaluating current laws and policies and developing new ones, to ensure that they respect the rights and circumstances of older persons.
The LCO’s approach to this project has been shaped by the following considerations:
1. That access to justice requires looking beyond the clarity, efficiency and effectiveness of the law to considering normative issues.
2. The importance of incorporating and, where possible, synthesizing, recent important domestic and international initiatives in the area of law and aging.
3. The need to understand the social, economic and medical contexts in which older adults encounter and experience the law to enable law-makers and policy-makers to take them into account in designing and implementing laws and policies that may affect older persons.
4. The benefits of a framework based on a set of principles, which can provide guidance while remaining flexible and applicable in changing circumstances.
5. The centrality of the experiences and perspectives of older adults to the framework and its application.
6. That the evolving nature of aging and of elder law requires the framework to be designed as a strong foundation for further research, analysis and debate.
This Interim Report is based on consultation and extensive research undertaken by the LCO, and is intended to form the basis for further consultation prior to the completion of the Final Report.
II. Taking the Circumstances of Older Adults into Account
The starting point of an anti-ageist approach to the law is to recognize the existence of older adults as a group who may in some respects have different needs and experiences than younger persons, whether due to the accumulated effects of their life courses, social structures, or marginalization and stereotyping of older persons, and to take those particular needs and circumstances into account when designing laws, policies and programs.
The use of age as a way of categorizing people is so common a practice as to be almost unnoticeable. While the use of age categories risks reinforcing ageist thinking, it is at the same time indispensable in identifying and describing institutionalized ageism and in attempting to remedy its effects.
Law commonly uses age, at both the younger and older ends of the spectrum, as a category on the basis of which distinctions may be made. Older age is often used as a requirement for access to particular benefits, or as a marker for the addition of responsibilities or requirements, or as the basis on which particular activities or benefits are restricted. If one accepts the necessity of using age as a category for some purposes, that leaves still the difficult question of how to define membership in the category of “older age”. The LCO includes in the scope of this project all those who have been identified as “old” or “older” through legal and policy frameworks, through social attitudes and perceptions, or through self-identification.
Understanding the circumstances of older adults can be challenging for a number of reasons. Older adults make up a large segment of the population of Ontario and Canada: therefore, it can be difficult to form meaningful generalizations about their circumstances and experiences. As a result of ongoing demographic shifts, changing social attitudes and rapidly evolving legal and policy landscapes, the circumstances of older adults are constantly changing. What is true now about the experiences of older adults may not be true five years from now and may not have been true five years ago. As well, the lives and circumstances of older adults are profoundly shaped, not only by current laws and policies, but also by those that were in effect when they were children, young adults and middle-aged.
Education and literacy levels, labour force participation, income security, living environments, relationships and caring networks, and participation in the community are all relevant factors, as are characteristics such as sexual orientation, racialization or ethnicity, Aboriginal identity, place of residence, socio-economic status, citizenship status or other factors. Gender is particularly important, since most older adults are women, and the life courses of women differs in a number of key respects from those of men. The intersection of age with impairment, activity limitations and disability also raises important and complex issues.
Older adults have often been considered “vulnerable” as a group, and this vulnerability has been used to justify significant levels of interference with older adults’ autonomy. It is inaccurate to assume that all older adults are frail, dependent and therefore in need of protection and equally problematic to assume that the only or the most appropriate response to vulnerability is to restrict the autonomy of the older adults in question, a common form of paternalism affecting older adults.
However, it is also a mistake to assume that all older adults are privileged, affluent and capable. In some cases, older adults are disadvantaged because of life experiences; for others, aging itself may result in risk and hardship. For those older adults who experience or who are at greater risk of disadvantage and negative outcomes than others, a higher level of attention or protection from law or policy-makers may be essential.
Risk must also be understood in a broader social context. An older adult’s family and other relationships, living arrangements, income sources and levels, access to supports and the law itself may either increase or decrease levels of risk and inequality, depending on their quality and extent. Therefore, while laws, programs and policies must recognize the capacities and individuality of older adults, this recognition must be balanced by the provision of additional supports for those older adults who are particularly disadvantaged or at risk in order to ensure that the law promotes dignity, autonomy, participation and security for all older adults.
III. Addressing Ageism: Developing a Principled Approach
For the purposes of this Report, ageism is a systematic way of thinking about aging and older persons that sees aging as a negative process and older adults as separate and different from other members of society, attributing to them a set of negative characteristics. Ageism includes the tendency to structure laws and social institutions in a way that assumes that everyone is young. Ageism may be manifested in negative treatment of and discrimination against older persons, social exclusion of older adults and the tendency to ignore their existence, and paternalistic approaches that control older adults and remove autonomy under the guise of protecting their best interests.
Ageism has its roots in a set of pervasive stereotypes and negative attitudes towards older adults, several of which are explored in the Interim Report (for example, that older adults form a homogenous group, are burdens on society, and are resistant to change).
Ageism commonly manifests as paternalism, the tendency to remove decision-making opportunities for older persons under the guide of protecting their “best interests”. It also manifests as invisibility, such that older adults are systematically excluded from the social and public spheres.
In order to counteract negative stereotypes and assumptions about older adults, reaffirm the status of older persons as equal members of society and bearers of both rights and responsibilities, and also encourage the government to take positive steps to secure the wellbeing of older adults, the LCO’s framework centres on a set of principles for the law as it affects older adults.
Each of the principles contributes to an overarching goal of promoting substantive equality for older adults. There is no hierarchy among the principles, and the principles must be understood in relationship with each other. Although identified separately, the principles may reinforce each other or may be in tension with one another as they apply to concrete situations. The Report explai