Changing face of Taiwan's welfare net

One of the lunch-together sessions for senior citizens in New Taipei City. The activity is organised throughout the Taiwanese city, as well as in the capital Taipei and Tainan municipality, where the idea first came up.

Madam Lin Yu-min is 76 but sounds 20 years younger when she talks about the highlight of her days: having lunch with other senior citizens in her neighbourhood in New Taipei City.

"I've made many friends here and I'm happy. I don't feel so old anymore," said Madam Lin of the lunch-together sessions at the neighbourhood activity centre in Yonghe district.

Every day, elderly residents bring their own food to the centre where they socialise over meals. Often, the district chief gives talks on healthy living.

Madam Lin has been to "countless" lunch sessions since joining this year. The activity is organised throughout New Taipei City, as well as in Taipei, the capital, and Tainan municipality, where the idea first came up 10 years ago.

Mr Tan Nai-cheng, the official in charge of the programme at Tainan's municipal government, said: "Some old people can't stand to be alone even for a few hours. A scheme like this helps them feel the concern of society."

The scheme is also an example of a new set of municipal social welfare initiatives catering to the very young and the elderly, on top of existing measures which mostly hand out cash subsidies.

The trend reflects President Ma Ying-jeou's emphasis on building a happier and more equitable society through improving the welfare net. In August, the government released its first annual "national happiness index", which ranked Taiwan 19th among 35 of the most advanced economies in the world.

In recent years, the island's five municipalities have adopted innovative ideas to promote the well-being of both young and old.

In New Taipei City, the most populous locality with almost four million residents, the government pays for organic vegetables to be added to the lunch boxes of some 330,000 primary and junior high school students for one day a week. The scheme started in the current academic year.

"Nowadays, people are becoming more concerned about food safety," said Ms Liu Shu-fen, spokesman for the municipality's agriculture department. "We produce a lot of organic food... so we thought this is a good way to promote healthier eating."

The department is spending NT$50 million (S$2.1 million) a year to buy the vegetables from local farmers.

At the same time, the municipality has teamed up with nearly 2,000 convenience stores in the city since the beginning of the year to provide free meals to youngsters under 18 whose families do not fall into low-income categories that qualify for regular assistance but which have fallen on hard times. They need only to fill in a form at one of the stores and then they can pick up a lunch box and a drink.

In neighbouring Taipei, its six "parent-child centres" help couples bond with their children aged up to six through activities such as baking and exercise.

The four-storey 131 Fun Parent-Child Centre in Zhongzheng district, for example, is equipped with play stations with slides and bicycles and also rooms for breastfeeding or reading.

In central Taichung city, six "schools for seniors" have come up since last year. Residents who are at least 55 years old can choose from a variety of courses, including gardening and handicraft such as decoupage.

"Seniors should have a place where they could learn, just as children do, instead of staying home and watching television all day," said Ms Su Hsien-min, a spokesman for the city's social affairs bureau.

Classes, with a 90-minute lunch break, start in the morning and finish at about 3pm, just in time for the seniors to go pick up their grandchildren from school. The schools are run by local civic groups which receive a subsidy of NT$500,000 per school per year. Monthly "tuition" fees are capped at NT$3,000.

seokhwai@sph.com.sg

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