Respect, Compassion, and Care for the Elderly

On the afternoon of October 19 at the Presidential Office, President Ma Ying-jeou attended a seminar with representatives from groups dedicated to the welfare of the elderly. During the event, the president remarked that the government has designated Taiwan’s “demographic problem” as a national security issue. But he said that the public needn’t be pessimistic about Taiwan’s increasingly elderly society because the government will carry out thorough planning in response to current trends and will create a society that is even friendlier to and more comfortable for the elderly.
In remarks, the president stated that during his campaign for the presidency last year, he pledged that if he was elected to a second term he would hold monthly seminars with representatives from a variety of civic groups on a spectrum of public policy issues. President Ma pointed out that since February he has already attended seven such seminars with groups focusing on judicial reform, new immigrants, women’s affairs, youth issues, environmental protection, athletics, and health care. Today, he said, he has specially invited individuals from a number of sectors to discuss topics related to the welfare of the elderly.

President Ma emphasized that the point of these seminars is not only to listen to the opinions of those attending, or to engage in discussion. More importantly, feasible suggestions will be turned into government policy. Indeed, some proposals have already been put into practice. The government will continue to track the recommendations made by civic groups so that government policy can be implemented more successfully and better reflect the needs of the public, he said.

The president mentioned that presently 11% of Taiwan’s population is 65 or older, and that this figure is expected to increase to 20% by the year 2025. By that time, the nation’s population of elderly will have doubled to 5 million from the present 2.5 million. The public, however, needn’t be overly concerned about this situation, the president said, expressing confidence that appropriate planning and preparations will help to respond to the arrival of an aged society.

President Ma stated that Taiwan presently has 1,051 geriatric service organizations that provide about 50,000 beds. If this is combined with the approximately 33,000 beds provided at nursing homes, the total number of beds is already sufficient to meet the needs of the current population of Taiwan’s elderly. In fact, he said, only about 70% of the beds available are being used, with supply outstripping demand in some counties and cities. President Ma said that while there isn’t a scarcity of beds, there is an inappropriate distribution of them. Consequently, the government should further examine and improve the situation, he said.

The president stressed that the government is presently working to implement the “active aging, healthy aging” policy. Specific examples of this policy include the “Active Aging Learning Centers” that are being promoted by the Ministry of Education. The government, he said, has already elevated demographic concerns to the level of a national security issue. He emphasized that the public should not be overly pessimistic about the aging of society, as the government is formulating comprehensive policies to create a more livable society for senior citizens.

Included among the academics attending the seminar were Secretary General Wu Yu-chin (吳玉琴) of the Federation for the Welfare of the Elderly, Chief Executive Officer John Sai-hung Tang (鄧世雄) of the Taiwan Catholic Foundation of Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementia, Chief Executive Officer Lin Yi-ying (林依瑩) of the Taichung City Hondao Senior Citizen’s Welfare Foundation, Chairman Chan Hou-sheng (詹火生) of the Association of Taiwan Senior Citizen’s Service and Management, Prof. Lu Pau-ching (呂寶靜) of the Graduate Institute of Social Work at National Chengchi University, and Prof. Wu Shwu-chong (吳淑瓊) of the National Taiwan University Institute of Health Policy and Management. Participants expressed their opinions on three main topics: developing a long-term health care services system for Taiwan; boosting public services, strengthening existing mechanisms, and creating senior-friendly society in which the elderly can age actively; and encouraging senior citizens to participate in society and implementing health promotion plans. Government officials attending the seminar, listening to the suggestions, and posing questions included Minister without Portfolio James Hsueh (薛承泰), Administrative Deputy Minister of the Interior Tseng Chung-ming (曾中明), Political Deputy Minister of Education Lin Tsong-ming (林聰明), Administrative Deputy Minister of Transportation and Communications Chen Jian-Yu (陳建宇), Deputy Minister of the Department of Health Lin Tzou-yien (林奏延), and representatives from the Executive Yuan’s Council for Economic Planning and Development, the Executive Yuan’s National Science Council, the Executive Yuan’s Research, Development and Evaluation Commission, the Executive Yuan’s Sports Affairs Council, and the Executive Yuan’s Council of Labor Affairs. The broad-based group of officials demonstrated the government’s determination to forge solutions to various issues on an inter-ministerial basis.

After listening to and summing up the various recommendations voiced by the representatives from the civic groups, the president then issued several directives. First, he said that long-term health care should in principle be provided through “benefits in kind,” while “benefits in cash” should be the exception. Secondly, he said that home care for the elderly should be improved, adding that the Executive Yuan’s Council of Labor Affairs will iron out related manpower training issues. Thirdly, the president stated that about 180,000 to 200,000 people here currently suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. A care network should be established for these individuals, the president said, adding that this should not only include efforts to provide early diagnosis and treatment, but also that related supplementary measures and care should be increased. Lastly, with regard to the establishment of a “Senior Citizens Policy Research Center,” the president stated that this idea will be further researched by the Executive Yuan, which will convene a meeting with officials from related government agencies.

Some proposed utilizing idle land throughout the country to establish “Senior Citizens Service Centers.” In response, the president stated that because the fiscal situation of city and county governments throughout the nation varies, it would be best to utilize space in existing buildings. He said that comprehensive services could be provided based on the needs of the elderly population. For instance, the president pointed out that when he was Taipei City mayor, the sports centers in each district of the city were reserved for use by senior citizens at special times, adding that this initiative has been a huge success. In discussing the participation of senior citizens in public affairs, President Ma also pointed out the example of the Kaohsiung Senior Citizen’s Service Center, which has helped to train senior citizens for volunteer work. In addition, with regard to a plan that promotes mental health among the elderly, President Ma said Harvard Medical School Associate Professor Dr. John Ratey carried out research that proves that exercise is beneficial to creating activity in the brain. With this in mind, he said, the Executive Yuan’s Sports Affairs Council could plan athletic events for the elderly or otherwise encourage more physical activity to help the elderly keep mentally sharp.

Lastly, the president stressed that the government follows up and evaluates progress on new measures after each of these seminars is held. For instance, in February when the seminar on judicial reform was held with legal groups, participants suggested the abolishment of the Supreme Court’s confidential case-assignment system. The government acted on this recommendation and put a new system into effect on April 16. Meanwhile, participants at the seminar on new immigrants sought to extend the period in which relatives could visit Taiwan to 90 days, the president said, adding that the pledge made by the government was then fulfilled one week later. In April, women’s groups expressed their hope that the government would provide full financial assistance for the employment and vocational training costs of battered women, and also issue living stipends for these individuals. President Ma said that the government on September 13 acted on these requests. Meanwhile, in May representatives from youth groups urged the government initiate a “Business Start-up Loan Program” for youth, which the president said was then instituted in August. This demonstrates that the government is carefully listening to the voices of these civic groups, and that results are being seen, he said.