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LATAM LETTER Dec-13-2012 (980 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi
Aging adults: Latin America's demographic earthquake
By Barbara J. Fraser
Catholic News Service
LIMA, Peru (CNS) -- On a sunny afternoon in San Juan de Lurigancho, a sprawling district on the east side of Peru's capital, a small group of women gathered in a room behind the simple chapel.
Chatting softly, they passed craft sticks and paint around the two long tables. Over several hours, Christmas ornaments took shape in their hands.
"Our idea is for them to feel valued, to find a place in the church and to know that God is with them," said Doris Morales, who coordinates the Jesus the Good Shepherd Group, a ministry for older adults in this section of San Cristobal Parish.
The weekly meetings draw about 20 participants, mainly women, although a few men also drop by. Many were among the first people to settle here decades ago, when this neighborhood was a shantytown sprouting out of the desert.
They raised their children here and are watching their grandchildren grow up.
But most of them don't have pensions, and even if they do, much of the money goes for living expenses in the three-generation households.
"Sometimes they feel abandoned by their own families," said Teresa Diaz, who works with the group.
Latin America is facing a demographic earthquake, and older adults are at the epicenter. The shape of the population graph for the region is turning from a broad-based, pointy-tipped pyramid into a vase as the traditionally young population ages and fertility rates plummet.
"The population is aging at a rapid rate. What took 50 or 80 years in Europe is taking just a few years here," said Dorothea Schreck of Caritas Germany, who coordinates the regional Caritas program for senior citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean. "We are going to have a completely different social composition."
And most countries are not prepared.
Although Schreck points out that aging is not necessarily synonymous with poor health, most Latin American countries lack sufficient specialized health services for older adults. Geriatric medicine is a fairly new field in the region.
And while poverty rates in general among older adults are about the same as for the population as a whole -- 22 percent, on average, in Latin America -- some experts note that many more senior citizens were born in poverty and could face greater health problems later in life because of poor nutrition or other disadvantages suffered in childhood.
Many of those people also face the last decades of their lives with no steady source of income. Studies show that many adults in Latin America continue to work into their 70s and 80s, with the rate higher among men than women.
In countries with large "informal" economies, however, where people create their own jobs, that means facing retirement without a pension. Only 23 percent of Peruvians over age 65 have pensions, according to the International Labor Organization. The figure is 44 percent in Panama, 52 percent in Chile and 69 percent in Argentina, with Brazil the highest at slightly more than 71 percent.
Being on a payroll does not guarantee a pension. Only 43 percent of salaried employees in the region belong to retirement plans, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.
Some countries provide a government-funded monthly payment to older adults who have not paid into a pension system, but those amounts -- sometimes less than $100 a month -- do not even cover basic needs, Schreck said.
Some people do not even know they have a right to those payments, said Andrea Poscai, who works with Caritas in Brazil. Poscai, Schreck and other Caritas representatives from around the region met in Lima in late October to discuss pension systems for Latin America's senior citizens.
Morales recently accompanied eight women from the group at San Cristobal Parish to register for Peru's new "Pension 65" program, which provides about $50 a month to low-income seniors. The women are unsure of when they will begin receiving the payments.
While that money may help meet immediate needs, programs such as Pension 65, which is limited to people living in extreme poverty, are actually anti-poverty programs and not true social security systems, Schreck said.
Public services for seniors are even scarcer in rural areas, where people are less aware of their rights and children may have moved to cities in search of work, leaving aging parents alone.
"Older adults who live in rural areas are virtually invisible," said Ximena Romero, coordinator of the Latin American Gerontology Network.
In rural communities where many working-age men and women have migrated to Europe or the United States in search of jobs, older adults also may be raising their grandchildren.
Around the region, the church is beginning to respond to the challenge, but funds are limited, Schreck said.
In Brazil, the pastoral program that served children and the elderly was split into two parts in 2004, said Sister Terezinha Tortelli, national coordinator of the program for older adults.
In a country with about 22 million senior citizens, the Brazilian church's ministry reaches more than 1,300 parishes in 184 dioceses through volunteers who make monthly home visits, identifying health problems, encouraging people to stay active and helping them prevent falls.
"The goal is for the person to be independent for as long as possible," Sister Terezinha said. "There are many stereotypes about older people and negative perceptions of aging. People don't respect older adults. They think they are not productive."
Planning for an aging population "isn't a priority" for the region's countries, Schreck said. "There's still a lack of awareness." The church has a role to play in changing attitudes toward -- and policies for -- older adults, she said.
Around the tables behind the simple chapel in San Cristobal Parish, Morales puts the goal more simply.
"We want them to feel useful," she said of the members of the Jesus the Good Shepherd group. "We want them to feel loved."
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