Oct. 31, the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, was "Double Nine" Festival -- a day to remember the elderly. Government agencies and non-governmental organizations across Taiwan were once again busy with the usual visits to centenarians, donating money, or handing out gifts of pots, bowls and basins. This is repeated every year.
Over the years, the government has treated senior citizens as if it is providing for them out of the kindness of its heart, failing to formulate any positive, creative or forward-looking policies for the elderly.
As Taiwan's society continues to age, the "senior citizen issue" has become a popular topic of discussion and policy suggestions and recommendations a popular pastime. The strange thing is that a prolonged life expectancy, once one of the most important indicators of an advanced nation, is now regarded as an omen of a serious social problem.
Since senior citizens are seen as a social problem, current policy -- whether in principle or in law -- is only intended to improve medical care and social welfare programs for the elderly and approaches the issue from a pathological perspective. This line of thinking also sees senior citizens as synonymous with disability, emaciation, poverty, illness, loneliness and death.
In today's society, "age" seems to have become the original sin, and "senior citizen" has become synonymous with "social problem." Although a social welfare policy that treats aging as a problem to be fixed may resolve some of the issues facing the elderly, it has also inadvertently created a bad impression of old people, who as a result may be forced to stop participating in public life, including such aspects as economic production, policy making and social participation, relegating them to some dark corner of society. Aging, therefore, has become a problem when hitherto there was none.
In the West, people have gradually awakened to the issue of age discrimination and the importance of having a full life in old age. The meaning of "senior citizens" has been redefined in many countries, and prejudice replaced with opportunity.
In recent years, policies toward the aged in the West have taken a turn toward social democracy. In the post-Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan era, free market policies have developed into the "third way" followed by former US president Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Blair has said his conception of society was that the state should not only provide services for senior citizens, but also confirm their value and laud their experience and contributions.
The "third way" concept regards old people as ordinary citizens. They are people just like everyone else, free to choose the lifestyle they want and participate in various aspects of social life. The point of a policy on the elderly is to create a favorable space with which senior citizens can identify, allowing them to live in a world of hope and dreams.
If the government really cares about the elderly, it should pass a law against age discrimination so that no one has to suffer from age-based language, work, learning, marriage, family or medical discrimination. The government should also seek to establish an obstacle-free living environment for the elderly by improving traffic, living conditions, roads and other facilities.
Finally, it should increase funds spent on research into the prevention of chronic diseases affecting the elderly, in particular high blood pressure, osteoporosis and similar conditions in order to build a society offering more opportunities for the elderly.
Chiou Tian-juh is a professor and chair of the Department of Social Psychology at Shih Hsin University. Translated by Daniel Cheng
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