Many countries are fortunately taking new approaches. They are working to eliminate the economic, political and social barriers that prevent older persons from enjoying the same rights as others.

Keynote Address from the 2014 AARP-United Nations Briefing Series on Global Aging
12 February 2014
United Nations Headquarters, NY


Excellencies, distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.


It is my pleasure to participate in the AARP/UN Briefing Series on “Making the Madrid Plan of Action on Ageing matter: Where and why are we falling short?”  This question is at the core of the report of the Secretary-General that is before the current session of the Commission for Social Development.


As you know, Member States adopted the Madrid Plan of Action in 2002. They recognized that successful implementation required strengthened national capacities for policy development, and mainstreaming ageing into national and international development agendas.


Twelve years later, the results are found to be decidedly mixed – some would say, disappointing.


Many low-income countries continue to lack the financial and human capacity to implement the Plan, and only a minority of Member States – as reported through two review and appraisal exercises – are able to mainstream ageing into national development agendas. Additional hurdles include a lack of urgency in the need to address the growing ageing populations.


As a result, many challenges remain in promoting the implementation of the Madrid Plan in the context of differing demographic landscapes and levels of development. However, the 2012 review and appraisal found that a number of issues common to all or most regions, are undermining the social, economic and cultural participation of older persons.


These include:

·         income insecurity

·         difficult or no access to labour markets or social protection systems

·         insufficient age-appropriate health-care services

·         inadequate protection from abuse and violence, and age discrimination


I will address each briefly.


Economic insecurity is the most critical issue faced by older persons worldwide. In 20 of the 30 countries surveyed by the OECD in 2008, poverty rates were higher for older persons than for the population as a whole.


This insecurity is being driven by lack of access to labour markets and inadequate social protection systems. The situation is particularly acute in Africa. Only about 15 percent of older persons in sub-Saharan Africa received a pension, compared with 30 percent in Asia and around 50% in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Some regions have made progress. Labour market participation of older men in developed countries has increased, for example, as has the participation of older women in Latin America. Unfortunately, this progress has been offset by a significant decline of men aged 55 to 64 in the labour force in Eastern Europe.


Inadequate health care services present an additional challenge. On the positive side, there is increased attention paid to mental health issues – but mainly in developed countries, particularly dementia and Alzheimer’s – and the palliative care needs of older persons.  However, even when older persons are diagnosed with dementia in low- and middle-income countries, there is a lack of access to affordable long-term care and lack of support to the relatives who provide care.  There is also widespread lack of understanding of what dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is, sometimes leading to abuse and human rights violations.


The abuse, neglect and violence perpetrated against older persons is also starting to receive increased attention. Where awareness has grown, various policies and programmes have been developed. There is, however, a lack of agreement on what actually constitutes abuse and violence against older persons. And, sometimes a lack of recognition of the problem.    A recent expert meeting held by DESA concluded that global guidelines can address some of these problems..


Much work remains in implementing the Madrid Plan of Action and make good on the intention of Member States to build a society for all ages. Yet, individual success stories demonstrate that the challenges facing older-persons, although significant, are indeed not insurmountable. Older persons can, and in many cases are, able to remain active participants and valuable contributors to their economies, societies and cultures.


The Madrid Plan remains an important and comprehensive framework and guide for countries looking to take the steps needed to improve lives and remove age barriers.  


For starters, a change is needed in the way we view older persons. Too often a medical or welfarist approach continues, which cast older persons as passive recipients rather than individual agents in and of themselves. This can reinforce biases, negative self-identities and aggravate disparities.


Many countries are fortunately taking new approaches. They are working to eliminate the economic, political and social barriers that prevent older persons from enjoying the same rights as others. Here the emphasis is on enabling older persons to participate in all dimensions of life – economic, cultural and social – as active, contributing members of society.


I am very encouraged by the discussion paper I have seen on integrating youth and older persons into the post-2015 development agenda. Its emphasis on the need for a better understanding of the needs and rights of all people across the life course, is truly an important factor in advancing progress for current and future generations.  


With a new perspective and the Madrid Plan of Action as a guide, Member States can take the steps needed to improve the lives of older persons around the world.


About the author
Thomas Gass of Switzerland was appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Mr. Gass, who will take up his position on 3 September, brings with him wide-ranging experience in bilateral and multilateral development cooperation.  Since August 2009, he has served as Head of the Mission of Switzerland to Nepal (Ambassador and Country Director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation).
Before his posting to Nepal, Mr. Gass was Head of the Economic and Development Section at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations in New York.

 He also served as Policy and Programme Officer for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, as Deputy Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Guyana, and as Regional Director for Europe with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome.
Born in 1963, Mr. Gass holds a PhD in natural sciences from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and an MSc and engineering diploma in agricultural sciences from the same Institute. He is married and father of three adult children.



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