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UN urges protection for elderly as world grays

TOKYO--The fast aging of Japanese society is evident as soon as one lands at Tokyo's Narita airport and sees who is doing the cleaning. Young people tend to take such menial jobs in other countries, but here they are often held by workers obviously in the second half-century of their lives.

Having the world's highest percentage of older people is creating unique challenges for Japan, but a report released Monday by the U.N. Population Fund warns that they will not be unique for long. Japan is the only country with 30 percent of its population over 60, but by 2050 more than 60 other countries, from China to Canada to Albania, will be in the same boat.

The report urges governments to summon the political will to protect the elderly and ensure they can age with good health and dignity. Discrimination toward and poverty among the aged are still far too prevalent in many countries, it says, even in the relatively wealthy industrialized nations.

The problem is worse for women, whose access to jobs and health care is often limited throughout their lives, along with their rights to own and inherit property.

“More must be done to expose, investigate and prevent discrimination, abuse and violence against older persons, especially women who are more vulnerable,” the report says, calling on countries to “ensure that aging is a time of opportunity for all.”

“We need bold political leadership,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the Population Fund. “Aging is manageable, but first it must be managed.”

In some countries, such as Latvia and Cyprus, about half of those over 60 are living in poverty. And even in highly industrialized countries such as Japan the elderly struggle to get some services.

Hisako Tsukida, a 77-year-old retired elementary school teacher in Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto, is living what sounds like a dream retirement life, taking tai chi and flower arrangement lessons and visiting a fitness center for spa treatments and muscle training.

But her current leisure followed many years of caring for her ailing husband and then for her mother. Japan's elderly often take on enormous burdens in caring for older relatives at home.

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In this Saturday, Sept. 29 photo, elderly women rest at a shrine in Tokyo. The U.N. Population Fund has urged governments to build safety nets to ensure that older people have income security and access to essential health and social services as the world's elderly population grows.(AP)

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