Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Elderly Rights Become a National Priority

Clarinha Glock and James Allen Paranayba

BRASILIA/PORTO ALEGRE, Jul 12 1999 (IPS) - Brazil has realised that it is no longer a country of young people and is trying to make up for lost time by providing its ever-increasing elderly population with full rights.

There are 13.5 million Brazilians over the age of 60, or 8.7 percent of the country’s population. In 2020, the total will double, according to the national statistics institute. Brazil will rank sixth among nations with the greatest number of elderly in 2025, with 32 million, predicts the World Health Organisation.

The rapid aging of Brazil’s population has imposed a challenge for the social pension system, the health system and human rights organisations.

Brazil has sufficient laws to protect elderly rights, but the problem lies in their application, concluded 64 public prosecutors from the Judiciary and the Public Ministry (an independent organism that functions as ombudsman), who met at the end of June in Petropolis, a city near Rio de Janeiro.

The meeting, promoted by the government’s National Human Rights Office (SNDH), sought to define the legal actions required in defending the elderly as well as people with handicaps.

The public prosecutors committed themselves to mobilising all legal resources to promote autonomy, integration and participation of the elderly in society, stated Patricia Audi, general co- ordinator of the National Human Rights Programme, which is backed by the SNDH.

Meeting participants also approved the creation of inspection teams to prevent social assistance institutions from continuing as inhumane dumping grounds for abandoned elderly people, places often managed as for-profit businesses, said Audi.

Since 1994, the country has had a national policy “that considers all rights and necessities” of the elderly, which just need to be put into practice, stated Maria Jose Barroso, conference participant and president of the non-governmental Association of Cearan Elderly (ACA).

Barroso, a pioneer in the issue of elderly assistance, proposed the replication of Citizen Houses, a service she is promoting in her state, Ceara, in northeast Brazil.

The Houses are human rights defence centres with police power, but which also provide social services and promote campaigns to benefit the elderly, explained Barroso, 67-year-old retiree from the Ministry of Social Provision, social worker and attorney.

In a country that has always promoted its young image, the elderly suffer many prejudices, abandonment and mistreatment, even in their own homes, she observed. They are also frequently the victims of fraud and robbery by their own relatives.

The situation is particularly serious in the northeast, according to Barroso, due to poverty, malnutrition and unhealthy work environments. Many older people there, however, gain respect as the family’s only financial support with their social pensions, which the government began distributing in 1975.

To attend to another critical problem of the aging population, the government initiated the broad-based Elderly Health Programme, which involves several ministries and organisations, both official and non-governmental.

“The greatest difficulty faced by the elderly in Brazil is still access to health services,” said Jussara Rauth da Costa, secretary of the Council of the Elderly in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state. The majority do not earn enough to buy the continuous use medications they need, she pointed out.

The programme promoted by the Health Ministry is particularly important in this state, where life expectancy is 76 years, compared to the national average of 67 years.

It is not just about providing medical assistance, but improving the quality of life for the older population, explained Jorge Alexandre Silvestre, the ministry’s programme co-ordinator. “This is why we must fight mistreatment, and make the report of elderly abuse obligatory,” he maintained.

Elder abuse is not a well-known problem. The victims themselves are often hesitant to report abuse because they fear further aggressions or being abandoned in an institution. In the United States, authorities acknowledge that just one out of 15 cases of elder abuse is reported.

The rate of elder abuse may be lower in Brazil, but the issue has just begun to surface – Which is why doctors must be attentive to their older patients’ complaints, stated Silvestre.

A Commission on Mistreatment was created by the Health Ministry to pull the issue out of the shadows and to create an information manual that also includes legal resources. The manual will be translated into Spanish for distribution in Argentina and later, throughout Latin America.

A 1997 study indicated that for the elderly, mistreatment goes beyond physical violence. In their assessments, study participants included poor public services and “social prejudices,” stressed Laura Mello Machado, a psychologist and vice-president of the Brazilian Gerontology Society.

Humanising medical attention for the elderly and training care- givers to serve them better – whether family members, nurses, institutional workers or members of the community – are some of the actions the Health Ministry’s programme has planned.

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