Fri, Oct 14, 2011 - Page 8 News List

An aging population is not a curse

By Chiou Tian-juh 邱天助

Last week was Senior Citizens’ Day and we were once more treated to the sight of politicians heading to designated places and going through the charade of handing out red envelopes to the elderly in a demonstration of how much they respect them and care about them. It is a shame that politicians do not instead put their minds to addressing the structural challenges faced by the elderly in Taiwan and try to make more age-friendly policies.

From a gerontological perspective, the main problems that the elderly face today are related to how the state and society define them and how they shape the everyday experiences of individual senior citizens.

Put more succinctly, the fundamental problem the 2.5 million elderly people in this country face is that the state and society consistently view them as a problem, believing them to be a drag on economic development and contributors to a larger dependent population — and therefore a burden on society.

Experts in the field say an aging population could lead to considerable increases in expenditure on healthcare, insurance and welfare, wreaking havoc on the nation’s finances and eventually bankrupting the country.

The logical extension of the assumption that “elderly” equals “problematic” is that the aging population is a time bomb that will lead to the collapse of the state and society, which has led to a type of panic among the public. That, though, is quite an accusation to level at the aged.

The population is aging. Society is already on this trajectory and there is nothing we can do about it. What we should do is embrace the situation with open arms and a positive attitude. If we don’t, the population’s increasing life expectancy is little more than a sick joke on society.

The WTO has pointed out that the aging population — the result of people living longer than ever before — represents a great victory for humanity, the foremost success story of public health policy and social and economic development. It is at once the great achievement of the 20th century and one of the biggest challenges emerging for the 21st.

People have traditionally associated old age with illness and reliance on others, but it does not have to be like this, certainly not nowadays. We need to frame the debate anew: Elderly people are not a drain on the economy, they are active participants in it; they are both contributors to development and beneficiaries of it.

As early as a decade ago, the WTO proposed an “active aging” policy framework, extending opportunities for the elderly in terms of health, participation and security, and improving their quality of life.

Yes, it is true that an aging population could increase the cost of healthcare, but according to research carried out by countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the main reasons for increasing costs are inefficient healthcare delivery services, misdirected investment in infrastructure, the misallocation of expenditure and the inappropriate use of high-cost technologies.

It is not the aging population in itself that could lead to a country’s finances spiraling out of control.

Taiwan has also bought into the active aging concept, although the responsibility and emphasis has been placed more on the shoulders of the senior citizens themselves and largely ignores the role that ought to be played by the government. Compared with the youth, who are more active and mobile, the elderly tend to stay in one place and so they are the people who take care of the local area. Any active aging policy ought to consist of creating a living environment conducive to senior citizens.

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