The Stigma of Old Age

By:  Mario Osava

 The World News Inter Press Service, March 22, 2001

A society like Brazil's, which endeavours to promote competitiveness, puts little value on life, and ''much less on the end of life,'' according to sociologist Eneida de Macedo Haddad, who has been fighting for the social rights of senior citizens for more than 20 years.

A professor at the University of the State of Sao Paulo, Haddad coordinates the Nucleus of Research of the Brazilian Institute of Criminal Sciences (IBCC), one of the few non-governmental organizations studying the problems of the elderly and working toward solutions.

Haddad maintained that the reforms of the social security system approved this year as part of a structural adjustment aimed at balancing public accounts to attenuate the crisis have accentuated the rejection of the elderly, who are seen as ''a burden for the state'' and blamed for economic troubles.

She said the reforms ran counter to the Brazilian constitution and a national policy for the elderly in effect since five years ago, that promised decent social security and health care, ''but has not been enforced.''

If the elderly receive less-than-adequate pensions, they are more likely to suffer mistreatment, violence and rejection by their families and from ''the society they helped build,'' said sister Maria Luiza Nogueira, coordinator of the Pastoral for Senior Citizens of the Catholic Church in Sao Paulo.

Brazil's hard-hitting economic recession, meanwhile, is expected to worsen the living conditions of the elderly this year, those who live with their families as well as those housed in hospitals and other public institutions.

The need to cut public spending and the social security system deficit lead the government to hold the minimum wage, and thus the minimum pension, at a low level.

Three-quarters of the social security system's beneficiaries (some 12.5 million people), receive the equivalent of the minimum salary, according to the president of the Federation of Retirees and Pensioners of the State of Sao Paulo.

The minimum wage currently stands at 130 reals (around 70 dollars), and only a slight increase is expected on May 1.

Brazil is ''one of the Latin American countries least prepared'' to take care of the elderly, argued Nogueira, based on the experience of long years of dedication to the problems of senior citizens and numerous trips abroad.

In Sao Paulo, the older generation ''that built the city feels like a foreigner here,'' said the nun.

Often seen as a burden and a nuisance for their families, the elderly are frequently the victims of abuse, isolated in their homes or abandoned in asylums, she pointed out. Their money or property is often stolen by their children or other relatives.

But due to fear or economic and affective dependency on their families, very few senior citizens report the abuses, she added.

One of the saddest stories recalled by Nogueira was that of a woman in Sao Paulo who survived all her children. After the funeral of her last son, her daughters-in-law simply left her behind in the cemetery. She had nowhere to live and no source of income, so the nun took her into her own home.

Despite the numerous cases of violations of their human rights, the elderly have few organizations working in their defense, compared to the number of groups dedicated, for example, to fighting for the rights of children, women or indigenous people.

It is sad that the rights of the elderly are violated by the same institutions that consider themselves their protectors, such as families, hospitals and retirement homes, said Haddad, who has written two books on the issue.

Physical abuse, abandonment and neglect of the elderly are not only due to economic factors, but are reported at all socioeconomic levels, she stressed.

The IBCC carries out quantitative and qualitative studies on the problems of the elderly, and is drafting a manual on the rights of senior citizens to be distributed nationwide, even in the schools.

On the IBCC's initiative, a permanent forum of non-governmental organizations and state, municipal and medical institutions was set up to discuss and fight abuses against the elderly.

Defense of the rights of the elderly has made the most relative progress in the populous state of Sao Paulo. The state government has created a Council of the Elderly, on which Nogueira sits. And this decade, special police sections were set up to protect senior citizens in several cities.

However, several of the offices have already been closed - a trend that contrasts sharply with the mushrooming of police sections created to hear complaints of domestic abuse filed by women, said Haddad.

And while the special police section in the capital has remained open since 1991, it was transferred from an easily accessible office to the basement of a building on a steep street, which has led to a sharp reduction in the number of visitors.

Such developments are due to the disregard for the needs of the elderly, said Haddad, who added that the officials assigned to the special police sections were not trained to address the specific problems of the elderly.


Global Action on Aging
PO Box 20022, New York, NY 10025
Phone: +1 (212) 557-3163 - Fax: +1 (212) 557-3164
Email: globalaging@globalaging.org

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