Growing Old in Latin America: Do We Respect Our Elders?
Happy Senior Citizen’s Day! Every year on August 21, we celebrate the lives of the generations that raised us, and raise awareness about the elders who are going through hardship and abandonment. Especially during the current pandemic, celebrating this holiday is a great opportunity to show our love to a senior citizen and recognition during a time when they’re more vulnerable.
Have you ever wondered how life as an elder is in Guatemala? Personally, growing old is one of my favorite daydreams. I imagine myself with white hair, a pair of glasses, and not a care in the world. This idea comes from the fact that I’ve been blessed with four grandparents who are still alive and well. They had their own jobs and savings, so they live a comfortable life that allows them to see their children and grandchildren fairly often. In Guatemala, people are legally considered elders once they reach the age of 60.
However, not everyone in my country has had the same fate. Unfortunately, much of our elderly population suffers on a daily basis. Abandonment and starvation are two of the biggest problems the elderly face in our country. Many families struggle to keep up with the increasing demand for elderly hospice. Is there a silver lining, or do all Guatemalans ignore their elders? As a culture, we don’t take good care of our elders, but we’ve gotten slightly better at it.
We Have a Lot to Learn
Growing old in Guatemala can be a horrifying experience. According to the National Statistics Institute in Guatemala, over one million elderly people are currently living in the country. Of those million, RENAP (National Registry of People) estimates that approximately 1,300 elders die of chronic malnutrition every year. This issue is rarely mentioned when discussing elderly people, since it’s usually malnourished children who receive the most attention when talking about hunger in Guatemala. However, it’s important to take notice and discuss malnutrition of the elderly, since a lot of those deaths were untimely and could have been prevented.
The biggest issue we face, however, is abandonment. Hundreds of senior citizens in Guatemala are abandoned by their families in homes for the elderly. The family members later disappear and never see them again. This usually leads to the home needing more resources and not having enough money to sustain them, since they usually stop paying as well. Hospices can no longer afford to take care of them, so they send them to a cheaper home where the living conditions are even worse. Sometimes they are mishandled and belittled by nursing staff, as well. I experienced this firsthand when I volunteered for two years in elderly homes. To learn more, watch this video on senior abandonment in Guatemala.
Poverty is also a major problem when it comes to taking care of elders. Less than 20% of elders have a pension, and for those who do, the average pension amount is Q1,240. That’s $160 a month! Can you imagine living with so little? Neither can they. That’s why I believe we truly have a problem with the way we deal with the elderly in Guatemala.
Is There a Silver Lining?
While it’s obvious that we are in a dire situation, sometimes it helps to remember that there’s always kindness in the world, and many people honor and respect their elders. Places such as Fábrica de Sonrisas (laugh factory) dedicate themselves to bringing laughter and goodwill to people in need, including elders. Some organizations have programs to help people transition into their later years, as well as legal initiatives to protect the elderly.
Also, life expectancy for Guatemalans has increased over the last few years and has been slowly climbing its way up the life expectancy charts.
Oral tradition is important to Guatemalans. We often share stories and lessons through the spoken word given to us by our elders. Proverbs and sayings are abundant, and many families certainly love and respect their elders, so there is a shred of hope for our future as senior citizens in Guatemala.
Life is Precious at any Age
Especially during the ongoing pandemic, taking care of the elderly is an important aspect of life. One day, I’ll be old myself. I want to be able to have a family that loves and supports me, but it’s important for me to focus on the family that currently loves and supports me and do the same for them. The solution to this problem starts with our own grandparents. By being kind, listening to, and loving them, we’re creating for someone else that which we want for ourselves in the future.
The next step is the future generations. If we lead by example, and they see how we treat our elders, they’ll pick up on that and be nice to us in return. It’s great to think about volunteering and helping others have a better quality of life, but we have to start with our own elders if we want to really make a difference. We have to clean our own room before we tell someone else how to organize theirs! That is not to say you shouldn’t help out and volunteer if you want to, because the need for that kind of help is dire. There is only so much we can do as individuals, but if we come together we can surely continue to make a positive impact on the older generations!
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