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In City of God shantytown, elderly regain lust for life

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
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Brazilian day care for elderly
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Casa de Santa Ana is a center for the elderly in Rio's City of God slum
  • "It's like a day care for adults," says 78-year-old Jose Pereira
  • Founder says seniors who visit the center aren't isolated like they are in nursing homes

Rio de Janeiro (CNN) -- His face is crinkled and his health is fading, but Jose Pereira has a teenager's lust for life.

"Who knows it, knows it well. It's so delicious to be in love," he belts out during a game of dominoes at the Casa de Santa Ana, a pioneering center for the elderly in one of Rio de Janeiro's most notorious slums.

His domino partner Julia joins in for the chorus "aayyy morena!"

Pereira, 78, spends his days at the center, but walks - colostomy bag tied to his belt -- two blocks home to his family at night.

"It's like a day care for adults," he said after showing us around the small, two-bedroom house he shares with relatives spanning four generations.

"There I have fun with my friends. Here, my son-in-law works nights, my daughter works days, my neighbors are out."

Often, we do more than the state-run health centers do.
--Maria de Lourdes Braz, founder of Casa de Santa Ana
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His son-in-law sees many benefits.

"He's happier now," Jose Antonio de Souza said.

"He spent more than an hour in the bathroom today, fixing his hair, his mustache. I told him, 'I think you've got a girlfriend there.'"

Every day the Casa de Santa Ana takes care of 120 seniors -- elderly residents from the sprawling City of God shantytown who might otherwise end up in a nursing home.

It was founded in 1991 by social worker Maria de Lourdes Braz.

"People have the freedom to come, stay for the day, and then go home to be with their families," she said. "They aren't isolated like in nursing homes, without visitors for days."

One of the biggest challenges is keeping its members healthy. A physical therapist comes in every day to monitor problems like diabetes and heart disease, bandage injuries and sore joints and make sure medicine regimens are followed.

She and her assistant also use massage and acupuncture as well as exercise classes to prevent further illness.

"Often, we do more than the state-run health centers do," said Braz.

The center also provides hot meals and daily activities to keep them mentally engaged.

"I had worked at nursing homes where the elderly arrived and in less than a year or two they died," Braz said. "Not here. We have people who've been coming for 20 years."

When Braz founded the Casa de Santa Ana, the City of God slum was one of the most dangerous in Rio and its elderly were badly neglected, she says.

"People were afraid, I was afraid. We had grandparents who had lost their grandchildren to drug trafficking."

The shantytown was taken over by police in 2009, making it easier to organize community events and bring young and old together with projects like singing and storytelling.

On a recent weekend, half a dozen seniors from the Casa de Santa Ana were on hand to receive the Whiffenpoofs, an a capella group from Yale University. They then joined them on stage at a local church.

Still, fundraising isn't easy and Braz has had to turn many seniors away, giving preference to those with the most difficult home situations.

"Children are seen as people who have a future, who are going to produce, but it's the opposite for the elderly," she said.

"But they already produced and did things, so they have the right to live with dignity. We are obliged to respect that."

Pereira has 10 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and an impressive repertoire of sambas and love songs.

And thanks to the Casa de Santa Ana, he has met a new romantic interest to sing to.