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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkHealth & Beauty | July 2009 

Costa Rica: Women Ageing Alone, Easy Prey to Looting
email this pageprint this pageemail usMaricel Sequeira - Inter Press Service
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July 29, 2009



América Herrera, robbed and abandoned. (Maricel Sequeira/IPS)
San José - Though América Herrera may not ever know it, she has become the poster child for a growing practice in Costa Rica, which experts define as financial or economic abuse of the elderly.

The terms used to describe this practice do not fully convey the perversity behind it. Formally it is referred to as stripping the elderly of their assets, but what it boils down to is a caregiver, friend or relative fooling an older person in order to illegally use or misappropriate their financial assets. In short, abusing a senior’s trust to raid their bank accounts or loot their valuables and property.

The First Report on the State of Elderly Adults, prepared in 2008 by the Centre for Population Studies of the University of Costa Rica, revealed that this Central American nation has an estimated 300,000 senior citizens, representing six percent of the population.

While men 65 and older represent 5.7 percent of the total male population, women in that age range represent 6.7 percent of the female population.

One major difference between men and women over the age of 65 is that there are many more widows than widowers, given that women have a life expectancy five years longer than men.

In this country that ranks second in Latin America - after Chile - in terms of quality of life, according to an index drawn up by the Economist Intelligence Unit, women are thus living longer, but often alone.

And because they are alone, they are vulnerable to neglect and become easy targets for financial abuse. Or perhaps the neglect and financial exploitation they are victims of ultimately results in their isolation. The National Council for the Elderly (CONAPAM), a state agency, received 1,200 reports in 2008 and 600 in the first semester of 2009 for violation or abuse of basic rights.

Women are the leading victims. According to data for the first four months of this year, 254 women have suffered physical, psychological or sexual abuse, abandonment, institutional neglect, abject poverty or financial abuse.

"At CONAPAM, we receive the complaints and counsel relatives and acquaintances, but only a few cases have been taken to court," Edgar Muñoz, who heads CONAPAM’s service to beneficiaries division together with two social workers, told IPS.

A victim of plunder

América Herrera was one of the few whose cases will make it to trial. Muñoz recounts how "taking advantage of her dementia and the neglect she lived in, (Herrera) was scammed into signing a document handing over a 40,000-square-metre property that was registered in her name."

"What can I tell you!" Herrera replied at the nursing home where she now lives, when asked by IPS how she was doing. But this 70-year-old woman from southern Costa Rica, who looks ten or 20 year older than she is, didn’t elaborate.

She just narrowed her eyes, wiped away a tear that was a mere reflex devoid of feeling, and sank into a deep silence.

Sitting in her wheelchair, freshly bathed, Herrera is oblivious to the stranger by her side who pats her hands gently. She looks at nothing and no one as she clasps her frail hands together and rests them on her lap, lost in the haze of a mind overcome by Alzheimer’s.

The people who took away the only thing she owned "were people she knew from the town" where her property was located, some 130 kilometres from San José. They took advantage of her frailty, Zulema Villalba, the CONAPAM lawyer who brought the case to court, told IPS.

And she wasn’t the only victim. "Her three siblings, aged 60 to 84, who also suffer from some degree of dementia or have trouble getting around on their own or taking care of themselves, now depend on charity to get by," the lawyer said as she explained that the legal proceedings were still in the preliminary stages.

According to the report on the state of the elderly, Costa Rica’s population is ageing fast, with the latest figures indicating an average life expectancy slightly above 79, which in the case of women is almost as high as 82, dropping to less than 77 in men.

Women’s greater longevity combines with other factors to make them more vulnerable: the fact that more of them are widowed, and often their poor health or emotional frailty.

"We see more women than men falling victim to financial abuse," a phenomenon that is on the rise, and Herrera’s is just one case that has become public and made it to court, Villalba said.

She also pointed out that there are legal instruments available to protect the elderly, but said they fall short.

Article 61 of the Umbrella Act for the Protection of Older Persons covers rights abuses or crimes committed against individuals, and enables victims to request the annulment of any legal document they were tricked into signing. This provision can help seniors protect their property, but they must be made aware of it, and it needs to be enforced.

"Financial violence or abuse is also committed at the state level," Villalba denounced.

"This happens in the Ministry of Labour, where widows have to wait as long as six or seven years for their pension to come through," she said, and because they often have no other form of income, "they depend on what their children can give them and often have to move in with a relative.

"Some will die without having ever received the benefits they are entitled to. Right now there’s a case being investigated of a woman who had to make trip after trip (to the ministry) to request her pension, and she was always turned down, until on one of those trips she died," Villalba said.

María de los Ángeles Solís, assistant director at the National Geriatrics and Gerontology Hospital in San José, also says that figures indicate that financial abuse affects women more often than men.

Of the 117 complaints received by her hospital in 2007, 68 were from women. A similar trend occurred in 2008 and the first half of 2009.

"It’s shameful, and the older they are, the more dependant they become and the greater the abuse they suffer," Solís told IPS.

"Because they’re widowed and feel vulnerable and defenceless, or because they’re uneducated, many women think that if they sign their properties, savings and pension over to somebody else - a relative or someone they know - that will guarantee they’ll be taken care of and won’t be put in a home," she explained.

Another element that fuels financial abuse is poverty in the family. The University of Costa Rica study found that 16.7 percent of all households are living below the poverty line. But for households with an elderly member that proportion climbs up to 21.4 percent.

Researchers found that 100,000 of the 1.1 million families in Costa Rica support themselves with the pensions and savings of their elderly members.

Elderly men and women usually "have a pension and some continue working after the age of 65. In general, 17 percent of this population is still connected to the workforce. They have as many as three sources of income. It’s not unusual for them to become the petty cash box for their children and grandchildren," Luis Rosero, the report’s lead researcher, told IPS.

"At about 55, income becomes insufficient to meet consumption needs. By this age, people often have kids in college and have more expenses to face up to. That’s where elderly people come into the picture and take on part of the family budget," researcher Andrea Collado said.

For Eugenia Carvajal, head of legislative bills at the National Women’s Institute, "financial abuse committed against the elderly is more than just a figure, it’s a reality."

"How many cases are there that never come to light and remain hidden in the home?" Carvajal asked, before underlining that the state has the obligation of providing elderly women with the "necessary instruments to help them in this stage, so that they can feel safe."

"We need to empower them," the gender agency officer told IPS.

But Carvajal says that "we cannot lose sight of the fact that these situations are evidencing a breakdown in Costa Rican society."

"This is a very delicate issue, and neither society nor the authorities are prepared to understand this stage of life. It’s an attitude problem. We think growing old is something that happens to somebody else, but it’s a gradual process that happens to all of us," she said.



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