NEW YORK, FEB. 27, 2001 ( Here is a statement given by Archbishop Renato R. Martino, permanent observer of the Holy See at the United Nations, at a meeting Monday of the Preparatory Committee for the Second World Assembly on Aging.

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Mr. Chairman,

In his Letter to the Elderly, His Holiness Pope John Paul II described life as a journey that is not yet completed but continuing into the future.

That Letter, written in 1999, in commemoration of the International Year of Older Persons, indirectly and broadly touched upon several of the areas of concern identified during the First World Assembly held in 1982 in Vienna.

Who are these older persons? It seems that each year it becomes more difficult to identify those who may fall into a category which is defined by age and years, but who may not believe that their attitude, life-style or spirit forces them into a particular "age group." Are older persons those who have reached sixty or seventy or eighty years? Maybe it depends upon the direction from which the age is viewed. It is interesting to note the reference to “the oldest old,” those people who are above the age of eighty years who are, according to the Report of the Secretary General, “the fastest growing segment of the older population.”

People may identify themselves as "an older person, elderly or a senior citizen,” as Pope John Paul II (who will celebrate his eighty-first birthday in May) does in his Letter, but many of them may not wish this categorization to be used as a label for classification, and certainly not as a tool for discrimination or exclusion.

Older persons want to have their voices heard and their specific concerns addressed. At the same time, they may not want to be seen as having come to the end of their lives. As Pope John Paul II admits, “Still it remains true that the years pass quickly, and the gift of life, for all the effort and pain it involves, is too beautiful and precious for us ever to grow tired of it.”

Why is it that so many older persons living in the developed world will end their days abandoned or forgotten in a care center or nursing home while so many in the developing world view old age with reverence and older persons are respected and valued as a treasure of wisdom, tradition and heritage?

It is horrible to think that just as the world begins to make great advances in prolonging the lives of individuals, a reverence and respect for life has been lost. It seems impossible to believe that the taking of life has become, in some places, an acceptable alternative. For many older persons, such changes in legislation or medical practice, or the threat of those changes, have become a new source of fear and anxiety and can indeed weaken the fundamental relationship of unconditional trust which they have a right to place in those whose mission is to care for them.

Living longer must never be seen as an exception, a burden or a challenge, but rather it must be recognized as and empowered to become the blessing that it is. Older persons enrich society.

The past century, in which our older populations saw many years and witnessed so many events, was a time when great advances were made, allowing people to live longer, more productive and less burdened lives. Therefore, the United Nations must help all people, especially older persons, to build upon the past and advance into this new millennium.

As this Committee discusses the Report of the Secretary General, along with the other reports and documents which will guide our work, it should not lose sight of the fact that older persons have simply reached a new stage in their lives and that all of us must understand the significance of instilling an attitude of "a society of and for all ages."

This sort of society must be the goal of the Family of Nations, now and for the future. As the Report states in the Strategy for a society for all ages: “Even though the needs and capabilities of older persons today may not be different from those of 20 years ago, the world in which older persons live today is different, just as it will be 20 years from now, when today’s adults in mid-life will bear the title “older generation,” (paragraph 19).

The United Nations must ensure that the world is prepared to recognize and respect the human dignity of older persons and enable them to be full participants in society rather than viewing them as a challenge to the community.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
[text supplied by Holy See mission]