It’s such a common site on the streets of Peru. You see them on the mini buses selling candy, scavenging through a trash bin for plastic bottles or on the sidewalk begging for money. Their clothes are stained; they are often ignored, abandoned and forgotten by society. They are part of a generation of senior citizens that have been left to fend for themselves for far too long.
Just six months ago, Luis Felipe Espejo Cordero would sleep on a pile of rubbish each night. That pile was his home when he was first spotted by the Vida Digna (National Program for a Dignified Life) earlier this year. His hair was long, his face covered in stubble, he was rather dirty and messy. But thanks to the professionals in the program sponsored by the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable People, his luck was about to change.
When he was approached by one of Vida Digna’s social workers, the 88-year-old didn’t even have identification or a social security card, but after passing a series of rigorous medical evaluations he agreed to be taken to a home for at risk seniors.
Today, Espejo is a new man. He’s cleaned up his act— a decent haircut, clean clothes, and now has a bed to sleep on every night. He was also given medical and psychological care at his new home, the Centro de Atencion Residencial de Personas Adultas Mayores Jesús es Amor(Residential Care Center for Seniors Citizens Jesus is Love) in San Martin de Porres.
With people over 60 years of age making up nearly 10 percent of Peru’s population, according to the national statistics office, caring for the elderly in this country is going to require more of an effort from the government. Vida Digna looks to help those seniors who don’t have a place to live and are forced to spend each night on the streets.
“Many of our seniors don’t have ties to their family or simply aren’t connected to them, “said Julio Rojas, second in command of the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable People. “We want to help those older citizens who are homeless and vulnerable.”
Since launching Vida Digna back in December of last year, more than 160 seniors have joined the program and rely on it for a daily meal and medical care, while more than 40 have been given a permanent place to live in one of the program’s homes in San Martin de Porres.
Unfortunately however, many of the seniors still go out on the streets to beg and collect recyclables during the day, exposing them to danger.
“In many cases our residents go out to recycle or sell candy because that’s all they can do to feel like a part of society,“ Rojas said. “Even though they’ve lived on the streets, Vida Digna is trying to restore their rights as citizens. This is the first time the state has actively made an effort to find these homeless seniors, give them a DNI (I.D.) and a social security card.”
Once the pilot program in Lima is complete, similar efforts will take place in Ica, Arequipa.
According to government statistics, there are more than 1,100 homeless seniors in Lima alone. Out of that group, at least 900 are eligible for Vida Digna. The problem right now is that many seniors don’t want to take part in the voluntary program.
“So far there are few seniors being taken care of,” Monica Alva, director of Vida Digna admits. “Not all of those eligible want to go into these homes. Many suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s and refuse treatment. So we’re trying to build a network of outpatient care with the local municipalities and the Ministry of Health.”
Critics of the program say that it will exclude many of the most vulnerable elderly citizens and therefore, the criteria should expand beyond just those living on the street.
“There is more than one type of vulnerable senior,” Eugenia Fernan- Zegarra, an attaché of the Administracion Estatal de la Defensoria del Pueblo (People’s Defense Administration) warns.
“Every senior: from those suffering mental or physical disorders, the impoverished, ones with Tuberculosis, and seniors with AIDS. Everyone should be helped without prejudice.”
Roberto Aguinaga Tenorio lived on the streets of Lima for 10 years. He is now 68 years old and entered Vida Digna in March.
“For ten years I lived on the street, mainly sleeping near the Manco Capac Plaza in La Victoria,” he says. “One day some people with red vests found me doing what I always do—recycle cardboard. They told me they were from Vida Digna and I listened to them. Now thanks to the program I have a bed to sleep on every night.”
This program currently has a budget of $1.2 million to launch more homes around Peru. Vida Dignas hopes to help about 1,000 seniors with permanent residences by 2016.
“We need to work from the bottom up and ensure that every organization is working toward helping this most vulnerable section of our society,” Rojas said. “We also need to create more homes like the ones in San Martin de Porres.”