As Mexico ages, public services are not keeping up

INO SUN bedroom in Mexico City, a group of elderly people sit around a whiteboard. Some sleep; others play a game. They shout words, starting with the syllable the previous one ends in: “Taco! “Comal! A bubbly young worker leads them.

Listen to this story.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS Where Android.

Your browser does not support the item

It’s a rare sight in Mexico, where facilities for the elderly are scarce. Emma Tapia founded the house, Casa Alicia, in 2017. It can accommodate 20 residents; the day center is also open to men. “The demand is growing very quickly,” she says.

Mexico is aging fast. The proportion of its inhabitants under the age of 20 peaked in 2010. The birth rate is falling. In 1960, the average Mexican woman could expect to have seven children; now the number is two. Life expectancy rose from 57 to 75 over the same period, putting Mexico on a par with China or Lithuania. Today, 12% of Mexicans are over 60, up from 9% in 2010; in 2050, they will represent about a quarter of the population. “The population pyramid of Mexico is no longer so clearly a pyramid,” explains Baruch Sanginés, a demographer. Covid-19, which according to The EconomistThe calculations, resulting in more than half a million additional deaths in Mexico, may have slowed this trend, but only slightly.

Most gray countries are also wealthy and can therefore afford good public services for the elderly. For countries not yet rich like Mexico, rapid aging poses more difficult problems. Mexican policymakers are beginning to take notice and address the situation, but too slowly, says Luis Miguel Gutiérrez Robledo of the National Institute of Geriatrics, a government research organization.

The elderly in Mexico, unfortunately, are out of shape. Nearly a third of people over 50 are obese, up from a fifth in 1995, according to the national statistics agency. Not surprisingly, diabetes and heart disease are prevalent. As people live longer, dementia is also becoming more common.

In addition, the Mexican public health system is fragmented. A 2018 survey found that 12% of older people had no access to any medical services, either in private or public clinics. There are 700 geriatric specialists in the country, serving a population of 126 million. In the United States, there are ten times more (for a population nearly three times larger).

For many Mexicans, nursing homes have “negative connotations”, says Ms Tapia. As in many other Latin countries, most believe that the elderly should be cared for at home, surrounded by loved ones and loved ones. But it creates a burden that many middle-aged Mexicans find difficult to bear. More women are working outside the home, so they have less time and perhaps less desire to take on the traditional role of carer. In 1990, 34% of women were active; 46% are now.

In a sunny, cactus-filled patio, Ramón Jordan explains that his mother, 100-year-old Amalia Rocha Hernández, moved in with him after being passed between siblings, each tired of caring for her. Mr. Jordan is 66 years old.hijolhe’s old too! said Mrs. Rocha, looking up from her sewing. Mr Jordan says his mother is not a burden, but then lists a litany of difficulties he faces, whether she wants to talk too much or knock on his door at night.

Help is hard to come by. There is no comprehensive public carer system and private care is expensive. Mr. Jordan relies on his son and daughter-in-law to help him. The National Institute of Geriatrics estimates that there are only 1,490 nursing homes, offering 40,000 places, in all of Mexico. Almost all of them are private and expensive. Casa Alicia charges 16,000 pesos ($793) per month for residents and 9,500 pesos for those using the day center.

will you feed me again

An estimated 38% of older people are poor, according to an official measure that includes not just income but access to services. There is no universal social security system in Mexico. Since most jobs are informal, less than half of Mexicans have a pension. Pedro Vásquez Colmenares, the author of a book on the subject, describes the lack of universal pensions as “the country’s greatest failure since the Mexican Revolution”.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has increased cash distributions to the elderly. But even if these drains last longer than his mandate (he resigns in 2024), it is not certain that they will last, because the number of elderly people is increasing.

A few states are trying to provide more care. In Veracruz, which is aging faster than all but two of Mexico’s 32 states, the local health authority runs three public homes caring for 120 people. And some private companies are also stepping in by hiring older people, whom they praise for their enthusiasm and diligence. Walmart, an American supermarket chain with branches in Mexico, hires over-60s to pack groceries. When Walmart said it would end the practice during the pandemic, elderly packers protested. They are now back at the checkouts, masked in duplicate.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Does Not Age Gracefully”