In Chile, staying alive is an excuse to party

SANTIAGO, Chile — They survived August, and they’re celebrating. Thousands of senior citizens all over the country have been partying to mark the passing of the worst winter month in Chile, and the fact that they’re still around.

It’s almost a tradition during Chile’s cold and damp winter: elderly adults will greet each other with: “So, how are you surviving August?”, and respond with: “I’m passing so far!”

What started out as a joke among veteran August survivors turned into a very serious idea. It all began a decade ago in Chillan, a city 220 miles south of the capital, when a group of friends — all over 60 — decided that changing the month on their wall calendar was as good excuse as any to throw a party. They decided that every Sept. 1, they would meet in Chillan’s main plaza to celebrate the end of August and the beginning of spring. And so they did.

Now these friends call themselves “The August Boys.” And that solemn vow they made on a cold Chillan afternoon has since then turned into the most massive event for senior citizens in town. The municipal government has taken the reins of the festivities, organizing a party for thousands. When cathedral bells and fire station sirens sound at midday, they hug and rejoice as if it were New Year’s Eve. Then comes the wine and chicha (a drink made of fermented grapes), a military band plays, and there is dancing, laughing and remembering. Their example spread quickly to other cities, mainly in the south, where winters are harsher. By now, it is not just groups of friends at a local bar holding up their glasses to say good-bye to winter, but massive celebrations.

This year there were also parties in Concepcion, 280 miles south of Santiago, where senior citizens presented dance and music shows at a local theater. Nearby, in Talcahuano, hundreds of elderly residents danced and celebrated at a school gym. In Puerto Varas, 327 miles further south, August survivors took to the streets to celebrate with warm wine and local pastries.

In the port city of Valparaiso, northwest of Santiago, veteran journalists and their friends organized a sort of “New Years Party,” with live music and dancing through midnight. In Osorno, the “Club of August Survivors” organized a dinner with dancing and the exchange of gifts. Presents went from Viagra to woolen underwear.

In Santiago, it was President Michelle Bachelet who opened the party at Estacion Mapocho, an old railway terminal converted into cultural center. Under the theme, “We all passed August, for the right to have a good time,” about 2,000 elderly adults, most of whom participate in government senior citizen programs, filled one of its main salons to hear her speak, and later, of course, dance salsa, cumbia and cueca, Chile’s traditional dance.

“One can feel this good mood, that energy and positive attitude that you have and always impresses me. I wish your positive approach to life could spread to the rest of society, because we Chileans need to be more positive and feel more energy to overcome difficulties,” said Bachelet to a cheering crowd of gray-haired party-goers.

In Chile, 12 percent of the population is over 65, and the government estimates that by the year 2025, this will rise to 20 percent. Life expectancy is rising, but so are the difficulties in addressing an aging population. The government has made social protection for senior citizens a keystone of its public spending programs, extending coverage and funds for social security and health care and a myriad of subsidies and programs to help them “not just live longer,” as Bachelet said, “but in good conditions, with less uncertainty and basic guarantees.”

Rosa Rojas is 78 and lives in Paine, a town close to the capital. She has been participating in a group of 23 senior citizens where, she says, “we do a bit of everything: cook, knit, do exercise, we have tea, we tell jokes, sing, dance, we dress up in costumes — we have a great time and feel like we’re 15 again!” Many of the joyful senior citizens participating in the August survival party in Santiago shared a zest for life — thanks to their busy schedules, they say. Virginia Cordero, for example, spends Monday through Friday in one sort of class or another. Some days it's Tai Chi, others it's gym or literature. What she really likes, though, is the “memory course,” in which monitors have participants write about whatever they want — an experience, a recent activity, a letter.

“We’ve also learned to write poems. I discovered I’m really good at poetry!” said the 78-year-old from El Bosque, a low-income suburb in southern Santiago.

Her neighbor, 82-year-old Juan Avila, is into computers now. He’s been taking a workshop to learn how to use a computer and surf the internet. “This opened the world to me. Through written words and the computer, I can study, have more knowledge of things and visit places through the internet that I know I would never be able to visit in person,” he said.

And these activities could yield more than a way of filling the day. A new online contest offers an award for the best “prescription” for passing August. Open to anyone over 60, applicants must email their most creative suggestion for surviving winter. First prize: 12 bottles of red wine.