Latest News 2017 March The Right to Dignity (& How It Affects Your Loved One)

The Right to Dignity (& How It Affects Your Loved One)

When elderly people are harmed or abused at the hands of their caretakers, there's a cost to their pain that no amount of money can truly cover. While abuse claims can cover the cost of medical treatment, finding a better facility, or hiring an in-home caretaker, many victims are left scarred and in anguish from their experience.

Nursing home abuse claims make allowance for these injuries—past cases have received verdicts for pain and suffering, mental anguish, and other "non-economic" damages. Punitive damages have also been awarded in order to punish wrongdoing.

Today's blog examines a legal and philosophical principle that could help bring clarity and understanding to your loved one's struggles: the right to dignity.

Rather than serving as a specific way to try your loved one's claim—there are already statutes protecting the elderly from abuse—it's more a way of understanding why your loved one's suffering is especially heinous and damaging.

What Is the "Right to Dignity"?

Put simply, the right to dignity is an ethical, legal, or philosophical recognition of an individual's inherent value and right to self-determination. While it isn't a formal "right" in the U.S. Constitution, the right to dignity has been invoked in recent Supreme Court opinions and decisions regarding landmark cases—including the decision disallowing marriage bans on same-sex unions.

It is considered a foundational principle in international human rights and domestic constitutions throughout Europe and North America. While it has been widely and loosely used as a term, it general protects an individual's right to equal application of justice and equal rights under the law.

The right to dignity is mentioned or invoked in a number of UN Conventions, including:

  • The Convention Against Torture
  • The Convention Against Racial Discrimination
  • The Convention Against Discrimination Against Women
  • The Convention for the Rights of the Child

The phrase has been included in numerous state constitutions—including Louisiana and Illinois—outlawing discrimination due to race, sex, gender, age, ethnicity, or religion. It has been applied by the Supreme Court in same-sex marriage cases, in asylum seeker cases, and to cases involving the treatment of disabled patients.

How It Applies to the Elderly

Virtually all elaborations on the right of human dignity in a legal context follow the model of the Civil Rights Act, which protects citizens facing discrimination due to a number of factors—including age. Specifically, it means that no person should suffer negative "distinction" or abuse on the basis of age. For elders in nursing homes, that means being entitled to humane and ethical treatment, no abusive or neglectful practices, and the protection of their "physical and mental integrity."

Physical or mental abuse, financial fraud, or sexual abuse would certainly be considered an attack on a person's physical or mental integrity. Any abuse in the context of a nursing home would be classified as age discrimination, as the abuses suffered by seniors are made possible by their age's vulnerability and fragility.

The reason the right to dignity is vital as a value is because the integrity of any legal system is threatened by the abuses suffered under its watch. We are only as free as the most vulnerable among us, and our justice system is only as just as it is with the most abused groups. When we don't recognize the inherent value and dignity each of our seniors have, then we deny the existence of human value at all. Every victim of abuse deserves to be heard in court—otherwise, it's hardly a "justice" system at all.