Aging and Poverty

I just came from Sao Paulo—an enormous city of more than 20 million folks. Brazil has about 188 million, a lot of them dealing with poverty every day. They have about 17 million folks over 60 and, like our aging population, that number will almost double by 2025. The biggest difference is that Brazil doesn’t have as much of an economic foundation and social infrastructure to support its older citizens. I was speaking to a friend there who shared his view that very few people in Latin America, except those who are well off, are remotely prepared to be old (either psychologically or economically).

When aging and poverty meet, it is a tragedy and a disaster waiting to happen. To be sure, we see it already in those UNESCO pictures of starving children—just add 5 or 6 decades to each face and you get the idea.

But there exists a ray of hope in Brazil which shines as a beacon for all of us. In one of the more famous “favellas” (slums) in Rio, a visionary named Maria de Lourdes Braz is working to create intergenerational solidarity. In the Cidade de Deus (City of God), she and her partners have set up Casa de Santa Ana (House of Saint Anne), a community-based care facility system for people age 60+ that offers them ‘new life’. That ‘life’ includes several programs run through the facility that allow the residents to interact and serve as leaders and resources to the under-18 population in the community.

The idea is as ancient and basic as people taking care of people in the community—just because they are part of the community. It’s the same idea as children caring for grandparents extended to every person being responsible for every member of the community. When we see these kinds of examples, it is easy to give the credit to the Maria de Lourdes or the Mother Theresa’s of the world, but in fact this kind of humanity and common sense is available to everyone who cares about our common future.

We’ve all become a bit numb to pictures of people suffering. This is understandable. It is sometimes a necessary barrier to confronting the suffering all around us. I am not suggesting we all should or could be saints, but I am saying that without real and committed human-to-human ‘community’ (not just collections of special interests) we will all perish. Our ancestors learned this in the caves, on the plains and as immigrants in the big cities of the ‘new world’. They learned that none of us can survive by ourselves: we need other people to not only survive, but also to make surviving worthwhile.

Without community, poverty and aging are just facts of life that we all need to deal with as best we can. Without community, life becomes every man and woman for themselves. At best, we end up as political constituents competing with our own children and grandchildren for our piece of the pie in an impersonal marketplace of ‘entitlements’.

With community, we become more than our circumstances. We can dream of a future that is inclusive and create a world that works for everyone.