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BUENOS AIRES, Feb 14 2011 (IPS) - Although Latin America still has an image of a young region, the base of the population pyramid is shrinking fast as a result of declining birth rates while the top section is expanding due to the growing numbers of elderly — a phenomenon that poses enormous demographic challenges.
The population over the age of 60 in Latin America reached 43 million in 2000, and will rise to around 100.5 million by 2025 and to some 183.7 million by 2050, according to projections by the Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Centre (CELADE).
This increase is not a result of the growth in the general population but of the ageing of the population. While older adults represented 6.5 percent of the population of this region in 1975, today they account for nine percent, and they will represent 14.8 percent by 2025 and 24.3 percent by 2050, projects CELADE, the population division of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
One key example of an ageing population in the region is Cuba, where people over 60 will represent 37.5 percent of the population by 2050, according to the projections.
Latin America’s population pyramid is thus becoming more of a rectangular column with an upper segment that is broadening as life expectancy rises.
Aware of that tendency, representatives of Latin America, with the support of the 131-member Group of 77 plus China, the world’s largest coalition of developing nations, was successful in its push for the United Nations General Assembly to agree to set up a working group on the rights of older adults in November.
What challenges does this process pose in a region which, although it has seen marked economic and social progress over the last decade, still has a number of pending issues in terms of addressing the problems faced by its population?
“Latin America is ageing at a faster pace than Europe,” said Enrique Peláez, director of the master’s degree programme in demographics at the National University of Córdoba’s Centre of Advanced Studies. “In just 30 years the birth rate dropped sharply and the number of older adults is growing, which poses the need for paradigm changes in the area of health and in terms of the scope of social security coverage.”
Peláez, who is also secretary general of the Latin American Association of Population Studies (ALAP), pointed out that the biggest challenges in the region have always been cutting infant and maternal mortality rates. He remarked that although there is still much to do in these areas, there are new needs that have largely gone unaddressed.
“We have many paediatricians, but very few gerontologists,” he noted.
He said the ageing of the population, which is most marked in Costa Rica, Cuba and Uruguay, raises the need to pay more attention to prevention and care of elderly persons who are losing their independence, in families that are made up of a smaller and smaller number of individuals.
In Latin America, Argentina is the country where the largest proportion of older adults are in nursing homes. Nevertheless, under two percent of the elderly are institutionalised in this country. The rest of the countries of Latin America have rates below 0.5 percent, Peláez said.
A change in pension schemes is also needed. There is a large disparity between countries, some of which provide pension coverage to 80 percent of the elderly, like Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, and extreme cases where coverage is below 15 percent.
In many countries, such as Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Paraguay, the great majority of older adults are not guaranteed an income, and are basically forced to keep working until they are no longer able to or until they die.
In the report “Social Security Coverage in Latin America”, Rafael Rofman, a World Bank senior economist and pensions expert from Argentina, says “most of the region’s countries have serious problems in meeting the basic objectives of their social security systems.”
Rofman outlines the limitations of contributory social security schemes to ensure incomes for all older adults, such as large informal economies and job instability.
To get around these limitations, countries like Chile and Bolivia “have developed non-contributive programmes of a significant magnitude,” the study says. It also mentions the case of Brazil, which has adopted a non-contributory pension for older adults in rural areas.
In Argentina, after centre-left President Néstor Kirchner took office in 2003, a solution was offered to homemakers and elderly persons who had not made payments towards their pensions because they worked in the informal sector.
On reaching retirement age, the beneficiaries now draw a minimum pension and the contributions they owe are paid for by monthly deductions from the payments they receive.
The number of older adults in Argentina receiving a steady income thus grew from 3.2 million to 5.6 million, or 87 percent of all retirees.
In Bolivia, the government of left-wing President Evo Morales adopted a universal pension for the elderly, without requiring previous payments. Rofman’s study, however, notes that coverage is high, but not actually universal.
Some governments in the region are thus reaching the conclusion that general tax revenue, and not only contributions by formal sector workers, should be used to finance incomes for all older adults — a tendency that will take on increasing significance as the proportion of elderly persons grows over the next decades.
Many civil society organisations are working to achieve greater integration of older persons and guarantee their rights. Experts say the best initiatives help forge links between people of different generations, and promote lifelong learning and maintenance of skills in different areas.
In Uruguay, the Institutional Centre of Collaboration with the Older Adult (CICAM) has been offering courses and workshops on languages, computers, literature, physical activities and other areas for 20 years.
“We do a great deal of work around the issue of the rights of the elderly,” 84-year-old Silvia Tron, vice-president of CICAM and one of its founders, told IPS. “Now we are putting an emphasis on the issue of mistreatment and violence, and we have opened up a legal advice and psychological help centre for senior citizens.”
Tron said the centre “has been very successful,” although for an unfortunate reason: that many older adults show up to report mistreatment by family members and the undermining of their rights over their property or income.
The activist said the medium-term challenge is educating all segments of society on the question of ageing. To that end, CICAM has launched a course provided to primary and secondary school teachers, which it wants to expand to doctors, civil servants, bus drivers, journalists and the police.
“In Uruguay there are nearly half a million retirees (out of a total population of 3.3 million). I always tell the political leaders that we could decide an election, and that our numbers are growing. So we have to participate and get our voices heard,” she said.
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