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Toward humane geriatrics

By Arie Hoekman | China Daily | Updated: 2013-10-12 07:09

The amended law on the elderly is undoubtedly a great advancement in the protection of elderly people's rights because it makes it mandatory for stakeholders at all levels to protect the rights of senior citizens. It also prohibits domestic violence against the elderly and encourages their offspring to visit them more regularly. But the law lacks clear definitions and specific measures to operationalize these general clauses.

Legislative provisions that specifically define forms of violence, and proper provisions and clear procedures to prevent and respond to elder abuse should be put in place. Violence against senior citizens, like other forms of violence, are often kept under wraps as family or private matters. As the Global Aging Report says, few countries provide adequate measures to protect the elderly from abuse.

In China, a window of opportunity is emerging to lay greater emphasis on how to define, how to prevent and how to respond to domestic violence against senior citizens. China is in the process of drafting its first national law on family violence. A UN inter-agency task force was initiated in 2012 to help in drafting China's domestic violence law from a rights-based perspective to ensure that the elderly, as well as other family members, such as children, women and the physically challenged, are protected from all forms of violence.

Comprehensive legislation is critical to an effective and coordinated response to the violence against the elderly. The law should not only declare all forms of violence in families as crime that call for prosecution and punishment, but also be effective in preventing domestic violence in the first place.

The elderly are also maltreated in communities by caregivers. As China takes measures to overcome the aging population problem - which include scaling up and expediting eldercare institutions - the authorities have to ensure that there is "zero tolerance" for elder abuse. Caregivers should receive proper training, and eldercare institutions should be monitored and evaluated to make sure they follow the rules.

To effectively address the issue of elder abuse, a gender perspective should be brought into practice. Elderly men and women usually face different types of problems. Elderly women are more likely to face violence and abuse because they are subjects of double discrimination, of age and gender. Therefore, prevention and response systems should consider gender sensitive needs of elderly women and men.

One effective way of ensuring a life free of violence and abuse for the elderly is to establish a foolproof mechanism of getting maximum reliable data on senior citizens. It is essential to understand not only the prevalence of the problem, but also the underlying reasons for the problem.

The comprehension of the scale and causes of the problem form the basis of effective prevention and response policies, and intervention programs require concerted efforts of governments, communities and every individual member of society, including senior citizens themselves.

The world is aging rapidly. By 2050, one-fifth of the global population will be aged 60 years or above. And one in every four elderly people will be a Chinese national because of the faster pace of aging in China.

Since the proportion of elderly people in the total population will continue to increase, action must be taken now to ensure senior citizens live a life free of maltreatment. This riding principle has to be followed to reap the potential longevity dividend in the quest of sustainable and equitable development for all.

The author is United Nations Population Fund's representative to China.

(China Daily 10/12/2013 page5)

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