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Imagine a city that allows you to live your final years with grace and dignity. If your health is impaired, you can receive home visits from caregivers, priority healthcare at clinics and hospitals, and access to rehabilitation centres. This poses a critical question: will ageing populations stay healthy, with a sense of wellbeing, social engagement and productivity, or will they face illness, disability and dependency?
Many countries are already struggling to look after their elderly, Chile among them. According to WHO recommendations, Chile should have at least geriatricians. But there are only around 80, three-quarters of whom work in the private sector, while the few that are employed in the public sector are all based in Santiago. Providing bungalows for 20 seniors, it was built in one of the most rundown districts of the city. Soon after the first residents arrived, a barbed wire-topped wall was placed around the complex, which looks a little prison-like but at least deters local thieves.
A supervisor worked at the complex during the first year, but then the residents were left alone for the next three — which were, they say, rather grim. Finally, in June of this year, as part of the Hub project, they welcomed new supervisor Gabriela Castro. On the day I visit the complex, a group of seniors is waiting ready to be interviewed in their community room, their table laden with tea and cakes. Within the next three years, the city should have a rehabilitation centre staffed by fifth-year medical students that treats 80 patients a day, a local government-funded spa and recreation centre, and a hospital geriatric unit with 10 beds.
The city council is also in talks with local transport companies about updating a rundown bus service for which seniors pay full fare , and exploring the introduction of a trolleybus system. However, larger initiatives such as these are dependent on central government funding, and so far a firm commitment has not been made at ministerial level.
For Vergara, progress is being made to improve the lives of the elderly in Chile, albeit late in the day. However, he warns that Chile lags so far behind in terms of elderly care that matters will get worse before they improve. Vergara believes that the only long-term solution is that the private sector becomes more involved. State provision for the elderly in Chile has certainly improved in recent years, but marginally so given the size of this portion of the population, and the poverty and ill health many are exposed to.