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Statement by H.E. Archbishop Renato R. Martino
Apostolic Nuncio
Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations
Before the Plenary of the General Assembly in its 54th Session
on the

New York, 5 October 1999

The Holy See welcomes this opportunity to join in the discussion of the Follow-up to the International Year of Older Persons. It is a topic the Holy See has followed with the closest interest and with satisfaction in seeing the considerable strides that have been made in main streaming the concerns of older persons into the work of the United Nations.

We live in an age of sweeping demographic change - a time when the estimated population of the aged in the world is 600 million out of 6 billion, and when it is estimated to grow to 2 billion out of 8.9 billion by 2050. By that time, if projections prove true, the population of older persons will be larger than the population of children under 14.

Persons over 60 have become a significant segment of the world population and an important factor in any attempt to plan for social development.

For too long, however, the aged have been a neglected, often invisible section of the population, often missing the interest of development planners. Many of the aged are fragile and ill and do not have access to adequate health care. Some institutions do not want to maintain the chronically ill or those who are unlikely to recover, and insurers do not want to pay for it.

Among the most serious difficulties from which aged people suffer are, of course, the economic ones. Because of the reduction in income that comes after retirement, a high percentage of older people find themselves living near the poverty level. Government schemes, where they exist, are generally inadequate and inflation becomes a serious menace. As a result, the aged sometimes even cut back on their food and nutritional deficiencies ensue.

Among the problems from which the aged suffer the worst are loneliness and a sense of marginalization. In a world which values productivity so highly, elderly people are often deemed unproductive and, indeed, are too often considered a burden to others. Even when not obliged to leave the work force because of mandatory retirement, the older worker in urban areas is often regarded as ineffective or unprepared to take on new tasks, and he/she often encounters active discrimination when seeking work. This leaves him/her with a sense of uselessness.

Perhaps none are more marginalized than the elderly without family connections. Prior to the 20th century, care of the aged was considered a family responsibility. But today, most adult children are working, without anything like family leave available to them. When aged parents need help, they are very often left without affectionate, caring presences to fill their loneliness. According to a survey undertaken some time ago among National Councils of Catholic Bishops by the Opera Pia, a Catholic Church society for the aging, nearly all societies reported "overt, or underlying marginalization of the aged which cuts across the economic, psychological and social aspects of their lives."

For its part the Holy See is strongly convinced of the value of older people, with their accumulated experience, skills, wisdom, based on their unique, irreplaceable humanity. This concern is manifested in the work the Church does for the aged poor, in the 12,000 nursing homes for the aged which it maintains worldwide, and in the devoted efforts of the religious orders which care for the aged. Major research in gerontology is being done in Catholic universities throughout the world. Catholic hospitals have been pioneers in designing palliative care. Only last March, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Holy See's office designated as focal point for co-ordination of the Holy See's activities for the International Year of Older Persons, issued a document titled "The Dignity of Older People and their Mission in the Church and in the World," which reaffirmed "the primary importance of recognizing and fostering the intrinsic value of persons of all ages." This document was distributed last March to all the Permanent Representatives accredited to the United Nations.

The Church's view of aging is deeply rooted in Biblical tradition. In the Old Testament, a long life is seen as one of the signs of God's presence among his people (Isaiah 65:20). Scripture tells us that a sign of the return to peace would be that old men and women will sit again in the square of Jerusalem (Zc 8:4). In the New Testament, St. Peter reminds the early Christians to do what the elders ask of them.

Pope John Paul II has often stressed the importance of the work done to assist the elderly. In one of his recent statements on the subject (Reflection before the Angelus prayer. Castelgandolfo, 25 July 1999), he said: "By their very presence, older people remind everyone, especially the young, that life on earth is a 'parable' with its own beginning and end: to find its fulfillment, life must be based on values that are not transient and superficial, but solid and profound." In conclusion, Pope John Paul reminds us that "the so-called 'third age' is ... a value in itself by the very fact that life is prolonged and life itself is a gift of God."

It has been said that the worth of a civilization is to be measured by the attention it offers to its aged. The Holy See congratulates the General Assembly on its efforts during the International Year of Older Persons, and urges society to undertake ever more positive initiatives on their behalf.

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