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WFU Law professor participates in United Nations program on older adults

Wake Forest University School of Law Clinical Professor Kate Mewhinney participated in a United Nations program regarding older adults in Bonn, Germany, in early May.

It was the U.N.’s first Expert Group Meeting on the subject of aging and human rights. The purpose of the three-day meeting was to provide the U.N. General Assembly with independent expert opinion on questions related to the rights of older persons.

“The overall goal of the meeting was to develop arguments in support of a convention or an international treaty on the rights of older adults,” Mewhinney said. “The people who work on international human rights issues believe this will be a useful process to get countries to focus on the question of older adults. Most important, the end result of such an international convention would be to raise standards of practice in many countries.”

Participating in the program was a real honor, Mewhinney said.

Mewhinney presented an overview of laws affecting older adults in the U.S. regarding healthcare, housing, age discrimination, abuse and neglect. She led a session that discussed some of the things the U.S. is doing well when it comes to the elder population and areas where we are weak. “We are not good at long-term care, for example,” she said. “People tend to die of chronic illness and our health care policy is missing the boat by focusing our dollars on hospital level care. Our health care policies should be expanded to help pay for more custodial or long term care.”

One of the issues that came up is that aging impacts women disproportionately. This is partly because they tend to live longer than men, they are often caregivers, and they don’t pay as much into Social Security, Mewhinney explained.

The U.N. staff is currently preparing a final document regarding the program, Mewhinney said.

“In many countries, companies can force you to retire at a mandatory retirement age of 60 or 65,” she said. “They were fascinated that U.S. law makes it illegal to discriminate against older workers using a mandatory retirement age.”

Mewhinney said that the U.S. Supreme Court is beginning to cite international rights law and that the U.S. is beginning to see itself as part of a global community. “It’s exciting to get involved in international standard setting at a time when the U.S. is moving towards more acceptance of international norms of conduct.” she said.

Mewhinney directs the law school’s Elder Law Clinic. She also developed and taught, for several years, a course on comparative law and aging, at Wake Forest’s summer program in Venice, Italy. In 2008, she and Professor Israel Doron of Haifa University (Israel), co-edited “The Rights of Older Persons: Collection of International Documents.”