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Preventing Neglect and Abuse in a Rapidly Ageing Society by Counselor Dan Zhang of the Chinese Mission to the United Nations, at the DPI Briefing on Preventing Neglect of the Elderly



Dear friends and colleagues,

It gives me great pleasure to join you today and share with you some information on older persons in China.

The 21st century is an era of population ageing. China, which became an "aged society" in 1999, has the largest older population and the fastest ageing process in the world. The older population over 60 is 153 million by 2007, accounting for 11.6 percent of the total population, up from 10.2 percent in 2000. According to the research report by China National Committee on Ageing (CNCA), the older population will reach 200 million by 2014, 300 million by 2026, over 400 million by 2037. The peak of 437 million will come by 2051, and thereafter the older population will remain between 300 to 400 million.

Historically, the phenomenon of population ageing in such European countries as Holland emerged after or simultaneously with the attainment of high socio-economic development. The transformation of a mature into an old population age structure in these countries usually took 50-60 years, and they generally are better equipped to deal with the resulting economic and social consequences. In stark contrast, in mainland China it is estimated that this ageing process will take only 27 years. In fact, population ageing in China has emerged too early and too rapidly, under circumstances of relative socio-economic under-development. At present, quite a few regions and municipal cities in China, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin are already above the national average in the percentage of the aged population.

The ageing of population will have a grave implication for all aspects of life. In the economic spheres, it will influence the economic growth, investment, labor market, pension and taxation etc. In the social aspects, it will affect social welfare, medical care, family structure and life styles as well as housing and transportation. China is a lower middle income country with per capita income just reaching $2000, ranking around N.129 in the world, according to World Bank. We still face daunting task of poverty reduction to lift the remaining 120million people out of poverty. Under such circumstances and given the big number of older persons, we face unprecedented challenges in preparing for the aged society, meeting the needs of the elderly in particular:

1. Insufficient and low coverage of social security including old age insurance and medical care for the older persons remains one of the biggest obstacles to combat poverty and improve the welfare of older persons.

2. Family care has been China's traditional mode of old-age support for several thousand years. At present, in the countryside, the family is still the most reliable support for the elderly, and 80% of the older persons live with their children or other family members. But with more parents of the only-child generation becoming old, the ratio of lonely elderly families grows. Now, almost 50 percent of China's urban elderly live apart from their children, up from about 42 percent in 2000. The ratio is as high as 56 percent in major cities. The transition of the society and the weakening role of the family in supporting the elderly could easily lead to neglect and exclusion unless effective and timely care and support are provided by the society.

3. Compared with urban areas, rural areas face a greater pressure. Different from developed countries, in China, the proportion of the older population in rural areas is 1.24 percentages higher than that in urban areas. As young farmers migrate to cities as a result of urbanization and industrialization, older persons in the "empty nest" households increased and care for the older persons that the family provided in the past no longer exists and social care and support are insufficient. Besides, the rural older persons are disproportionately affected by poverty.

4. While inter-generational solidarity remains strong in both urban and rural areas in China, and older persons continue to play a key role in the upbringing of their third generation, changes in family structure and residential modes have inevitably affected intergeneration relations. The widening differences between the young and the elderly in ideas and interests and values lead to bigger "generation gap" and sense of loneliness for the older persons.

5. Isolation and disengagement hampers older persons from active ageing. Active and participatory ageing is the dream of most people. Enabling older persons to hold on jobs and recognizing their value, wit and wisdom in workplace that come with a lifetime experience not only enrich lives for the older persons but benefit society at large. An enabling and friendly environment including age-sensitive infrastructure, transportation, social participation and integration, information and communication, also provide means for active lifestyles for the older persons. In this respect, community-based organizations in urban areas has been playing a positive part in China while rural areas are lagging far behind due to the limited accessible infrastructure, transportation and community services.

Dear friends and colleagues,

With the challenge of population ageing in China becoming increasingly severe, age responsive and sensitive policies has gained increasing prominence on China's social and economic development agenda, and efforts have been strengthened recently with a special emphasis on income security, care giving and expanding social security coverage and preventing discrimination against older persons.

1. A sound old age social security system is fundamental to ensuring income security and necessary support and health care for the older population. Thank to the priority accorded to social protection and vigorous efforts by the government in the past few years, social safety network has been expanded tremendously and greatly strengthened. For example, old-age social insurance system has been established in 1900 counties in 31 provinces, benefiting more than 54 million older farmers. At the same time, the new rural cooperative medical care system which started to be piloted in 2003 has been put in full play and covers 86% of counties in rural areas. The rapid expansion of the coverage of social security system and medical care not only in urban areas, but also rural areas, especially in the impoverished areas, contributes greatly to social cohesion and improving the livelihood of older persons living in poverty.

2. The provision of care to older persons has also undergone transformation compatible to the changes of family structure in China. According to a survey disclosed by the CNCA recently, 85 percent of the elderly people surveyed in six provinces said they preferred home-based care to nursing homes. Taking into consideration the increasing demand for care for older persons in the coming decades, and to cope with neglect and abuse arising from changes in family structures which are becoming smaller and more nuclear, a nationwide homecare system will be set up soon to ensure elderly people enjoy a comfortable and active life.According to a guideline circulated by the State Council in April this year, the government has set the goal to provide care services for the elderly in every community of every city by 2010. Comprehensive service centers for the elderly will be built in 80 percent of all rural townships, and one-third of all villages will get a center providing cultural and medical services for seniors.

On the other hand,high quality institutional care becomes more preferable to the older persons over 80, half of whom can no longer care for themselves. In east China's metropolis of Shanghai, one out of six older persons wants to live in "homes for the elderly" run by the government or private institutions with the hope of easing the burden on their children.

3. To encourage engagement with community and neighborhood, and prevent neglect and isolation, the Ministry of Civil Affairs launched in 2001 a "Starlight Project" to build community-based services for elderly people. The government has spent 13.5 billion yuan (US$1.63 billion) over the past three years in building 32,490 service stations, where older persons can read books, play cards, do painting, practice calligraphy, have exercises and attend lessons specifically for aged people. 17 thousand universities which are tailor-made to meet the needs of older persons have been established with now 1.5 millions older persons attending.

Many cities have adopted preferential policies, under which older citizens can have free visits to museums and cultural centers, free bus rides and enjoy priority to visit doctors.

Apart from government efforts, an increasing number of community-based groups and volunteers have joined in the efforts to support and care for the elderly people. In Beijing, there are 300,000 volunteers who have established one-to-one relationship with needy older persons and provide regular services ranging from washing clothes, cleaning houses and chatting with the seniors.

Dear friends,

Income security and social services, coupled with easy mobility by public transportation, colorful neighborhood activities make it possible for the older persons to live an independent, but not isolated life. For this to happen, we need the joint efforts by government, community-based NGO and civil society.

Thank you.


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