QUITO, Ecuador — Pope Francis' visit to a home for the destitute elderly in Quito was that of a pastor, but it was also a reminder of the lack of care and services for senior citizens in countries like this one, where the population is still mainly young.
During the half-hour visit to the home run by the Missionaries of Charity July 8, the pope blessed each resident, the workers and the sisters, pausing often to exchange words with them or embrace them.
His gestures underscored his message, repeated often during his visit to Ecuador, that the elderly are a source of wisdom and hold the memory of a people -- and that they, too, often are abandoned.
As extended families give way to nuclear families in Latin America's developing countries, where the population is still mainly young, the church struggles to fill the gap in social services, Sandro Flores, director of social ministry for Caritas in the Archdiocese of Quito, told Catholic News Service.
The government has streamlined health care for senior citizens at public hospitals and provides a stipend of $50 per person monthly.
But that falls short in a city where just the cost of food for a month is calculated at about $120 and rental of a room with a shared bathroom could run from $50 to $350 monthly, depending on the neighborhood.
"People often say to me, 'Why did I ever retire?' or 'It's unpleasant to get old,'" Flores said. "That's when loneliness begins for them. That's one of the most serious problems for senior citizens here."
The 50 parish Caritas programs in the archdiocese provide meals, medicine and clothing to about 800 seniors a month, but Flores estimates they represent barely 15 percent of those who need assistance.
Several religious groups run homes such as the one Pope Francis visited, and the Quito city government offers day programs with physical and occupational therapy, but gerontology is still a rare specialty in a country where about half the population is under 30, he said.
Flores welcomed the pontiff's message.
"Before he became pope, even before he became a bishop, Pope Francis paid special attention to elderly people, because he loved his grandmother dearly," Flores said.
"He believes we should not throw away the experience that comes with age. That is the source of our formation in the faith and our cultural and social formation," he said "We must not allow them to be victims of what Pope Francis calls our 'throwaway culture.'"