Second World Assembly on Ageing

08 Apr 2002

I am very pleased to be here in Madrid to participate in the Second World Assembly on Ageing and to make this joint intervention on behalf of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The greying of the planet represents the most significant population shift in history. Today people are living longer than ever before. It is a great accomplishment. Yet, even at this moment of celebration, our joy is tempered by the awareness that in some countries, gains in life expectancy are being rolled back by the ravages of HIV/AIDS.

Mr. Chairman, we are at a critical juncture. Global ageing is occurring at a rate never seen before and vast differences in quality of life exist between older people living in the wealthy countries and their counterparts in the developing world. The next few decades will test our ability to address health care, retirement and pension benefits, and other issues that affect senior citizens. For while people are living longer than ever before, many face a future without a social safety net. In many places, the forces of modernization are fracturing the sense of community and family care that the elderly have traditionally counted on.

The issues of ageing must be at the centre of the global development agenda. Today, the elderly are the world's fastest growing population group, and among the poorest. One person in 10 is 60 years or older, but by 2050, the rate will be one person in five. We must meet the needs of the older persons who are alive today and plan ahead to meet the needs of the elderly tomorrow. In the developing world, there are almost 400 million people over age 60, the majority of whom are women, and this figure is expected to rise dramatically in the coming decades.

This is a rapid shift that requires a rapid response. The real challenge is to balance an increasing number of old people with the largest youth population in history. We can't single out old people and treat them separately. The vision we share is the vision of a society for all. To maximize benefits, we must address the challenges of the young and old generations simultaneously. Investments made today in health-including reproductive health and family planning-and education and job creation will lay a solid foundation for economic growth to pay for ageing populations in the future.

We need to strengthen formal and informal mechanisms for the support of older people and improve the health conditions for all throughout the life cycle. Better health in childhood and during the reproductive years leads to better health later in life and can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, and the bone-deteriorating osteoporosis, which affects many older women. To prevent a high incidence of poor health among older people in the future, countries need to improve health and nutrition information and access to basic health services, including reproductive health, for all age groups now. Older men also have their own special health needs, which deserve increased attention, research and resources.

Education is also important. As more and more young people gain education, the gaps between older and younger people in exposure to education and information will decrease. And this will provide an opportunity for cross-generational coalitions in support of improved health, including reproductive health, and higher levels of education.

Ageing and Poverty

Ladies and gentlemen, we will never address poverty without reducing the overwhelming poverty that afflicts the elderly. Poverty is the main threat to the well-being of older persons. Today, many of the 400 million older persons in developing countries are living below the poverty line. Meeting the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015 requires that poverty reduction strategies focus on the poorest and most vulnerable older persons, especially women. We must also focus on breaking the poverty cycle that runs from one generation to the next.

Research commissioned by UNFPA in India and South Africa last year found that the main concerns of older people include inadequate living conditions, lack of access to social services, and inter-generational violence and abuse. Poverty among older people is also linked to low levels of literacy, especially for women-only one third of women in the developing world age 60 or over can read and write. Poverty among older people is also linked to low levels of health, lack of awareness and access to information, and a lack of participation. This leads to social exclusion and isolation, and reinforces the cycle of poverty between generations.

In responding to interviews, older people identified their priority needs as food security, clean water, good health, adequate accommodation and support in caring for their families. Due to the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS, older people and, particularly, older women, are increasingly acting as caregivers for their adult children as well as for their orphaned grandchildren. This is despite the fact that their own situations are characterized by extreme poverty, and they themselves often need help and support. Their concerns with growing older include fear of isolation, exclusion, illness, a sense of helplessness, violence and abuse, and confusion over the escalation of HIV/AIDS.

There is a need to facilitate positive action by non-governmental organizations, communities and the private sector for the welfare of older people. Policy dialogue can help bring different stakeholders together and provide a basis for joint action. And the needs and voices of the older poor need to be reflected in programmes implemented at the country level.

Ageing and Culture

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, we should not underestimate the role that cultural values and traditions play in older peoples' lives. Culture conditions the attitudes and behaviour of older people and the perception and practices of the society around them.

Given the rapid changes of the past century, and especially of the past decade, cultures are evolving to accommodate the changing social and economic circumstances. Cultures are struggling to embrace the increasing complexity created by accelerated globalization, intercultural migration and interethnic marriage. Cultures are trying to adjust to the dictates of reduced family size and modified family structures; and to contend with the social trauma and supportive demands of a pandemic such as HIV/AIDS.

While the family still constitutes the main support system of older persons in most cultures, traditional family support mechanisms are being eroded due to declining family size, rural to urban migration and declining co-residence, and in some countries, because younger family members are dying of HIV/AIDS. Nevertheless, in some settings older people are revered for their wisdom and treated with respect by their communities.

We must build on the positive values in cultures to encourage the protection and respect of older persons. This is particularly true for older women, who outnumber men of their age but who are victims of discrimination under the property laws of many countries and thus increasingly vulnerable to poverty as they grow older. We need laws and policies to promote the welfare of the ageing, but we also need to work at the community level to make sure legal and policy changes are sustainable and lasting.

This is particularly important in today's rapidly changing environment of globalization and migration, which is disrupting traditional family support systems.

Older Persons in Conflict Situations

Mr. Chairman, as the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), I would like to remind ourselves that older persons, especially women, are increasingly at risk of violent and other serious human rights abuses and violations, particularly during times of wars and military conflicts. These tragic events leave children, young women and older persons to fill refugee and displaced persons' camps as well as to become endangered civilians in their own communities. We have seen many faces of such elderly persons, to name just a few, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and now the Occupied Palestinian Territory. While the Security Council has taken a clear and strong political position on this situation, we, who are working in the humanitarian area, must ensure that Palestinian older persons are protected and that they have access to emergency relief and services that are needed for their survival. These tragic events are having a devastating and traumatizing impact on all civilians, but it is Palestinian older persons who suffer most, along with children and women. In fact, it is the older persons who try to preserve whatever cohesion is left in their families and communities.

Policy and Programme Challenges

Mr. Chairman, UNDP and UNFPA believe that overall, there are a number of significant challenges that require the introduction of policies and programmes that respond to older peoples' needs. These challenges include:

Promoting lifelong education and training, and healthy and active ageing;
Recognizing and supporting the care-giving services provided by older persons, especially women, to grandchildren orphaned by the effects of HIV/AIDS;
Eliminating violence and other crimes against older persons, especially women;
Providing assistance to meet the special needs of older persons who are caught in conflict and other complex humanitarian situations;
Supporting gender-sensitive research on population ageing; and
Strengthening social protection schemes for older persons, particularly the long-term care of the frail and poor - most commonly women.
Beyond these specific areas of government policy, there is a need to examine the role of government in providing a supportive framework for fostering responsible media, improving societal perspectives on ageing, and promoting public debate on these issues, which will continue to grow in importance in the coming years.


In supporting government efforts to meet the challenges of ageing populations, UNFPA and UNDP seek to work in partnerships, especially with the United Nations system, and international and national NGOs. The United Nations system can play a major role in advancing the International Plan of Action on Ageing by facilitating policy dialogues, supporting capacity-building and by mobilizing resources to support country-led programmes that address the needs of older persons. I am pleased to announce that UNFPA, in partnership with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and New York's Columbia University's School of Public Health, is launching a new programme on capacity building for meeting the needs of older persons in developing countries.

Finally, with higher life expectancy, older people increasingly want to remain economically active and make a contribution to development. Societies need to recognize the strengths of older persons and empower them. Human rights, sustainable human development and poverty eradication programmes must be developed, designed and monitored at all levels with older people playing an active role. The forces of progress that have brought about longer life spans and smaller, healthier families must now be marshalled to foster a sense of community, solidarity and care towards the elderly.

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