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Treasuring the Region's Elderly
By Wesley Gibbings, IPS, 7 April 1999
PORT OF SPAIN, Apr 7 (IPS) - Caribbean leaders are being urged to shun the temptation to view the region's aged as a bothersome burden on society and instead to consider their likely contribution to the cause of nation-building.
"The reality is that elderly persons have overcome the difficulties and challenges of living which are associated with the earlier years and have survived where others have failed or fallen away," says Daphne Phillips, Gender Affairs Minister in Trinidad and Tobago.
"Following the popular dictum of 'the survival of the fittest', any existing generation of the elderly are the fittest," the Minister argues. "That alone is cause for celebration."
Many societies, though, are far from celebrating the growing presence of the elderly. The elderly feature prominently in dependency ratio figures and experience grave difficulties in the areas of health care, housing and employment.
The dependency ratio in Jamaica, which measures the average number of dependent persons per 100 theoretically productive persons, is in the order of 62 and rising.
Life expectancy in the English-speaking Caribbean has risen from the mid-60s to the mid-70s over the past 30 years, leading to increases in the demand for support services for the elderly.
In Jamaica, average life expectancy in 1970 was 66.7. In 1997, it was measured at 74.6. In Barbados, the corresponding figures for the same period were 66.7 and 74.6.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the figure moved from 63.7 in 1970 to 73.7 in 1997. Phillips says the increased rate has provided Caribbean societies with a distinct advantage.
Joan Rawlins, a lecturer in the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the University of the West Indies says special attention must be paid to employment, health care concerns and migration issues involving the elderly.
"Governmental policy should ensure that those who still desire to work are able, and should not be discriminated against," she says. "There should be scope for all age groups who desire to contribute through employment, to do so."
She also believes that health and health care issues assume "critical proportions" for the older person "and provide some of the greatest challenges which family and society will meet."
"Although to be an older person does not automatically signal ill health, in time, the need for additional health care invariably arises," she says.
Rawlins points to the fact that throughout the region "the health sector organised by governments tends to be over-stretched; the elderly are rarely treated as a special group, and need to compete for health services along with the other age groups of the population."
In Trinidad and Tobago, it is estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of the occupants of the country's major hospital are older persons. "This," Rawlins speculates, "might well be the case for other major hospitals throughout the region."
Phillips meanwhile notes that there appears to be a gender bias in favour of women when it comes to health care statistics among the elderly.
"While one can easily identify volumes of literature on the descriptions of the declining physiology of the female reproductive system after age 45, there is stark little on that of men of similar age," the Minister says.
"The problems of impotence," she notes, "are predominant at the older ages in men, while women experience no such problems ? they only suffer in silence."
"The older person," Phillips notes, "has the advantage of enjoying the beauty and lives of loved ones, especially the young members of the family, without having to experience the accompanying stress associated with full responsibility for them."
But, Rawlins argues, there are many problems associated with the constant stream of young persons migrating from the region in search of professional and educational opportunities in other countries.
"Large numbers of our people move away to other countries," she says. "In so doing, they reduce the pool of persons available to cater to the needs of those who are older."
She says some continue to provide financial assistance from abroad "which is useful" but "others leave children behind to be cared for by older persons, often without making the necessary economic and social provisions."
Rawlins also notes that ageing, returning residents from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada face "many challenges as they attempt to reintegrate into the society".
She says such persons often return after retirement with funds to invest, "some return as sick and very elderly and place additional burdens on the health care system and on relatives who are ill- equipped to manage their situation."
"As a society," Rawlins says, "we need to be prepared to meet the needs of all our older citizens, regardless of their situation."
The United Nations has declared 1999 Year of the Older Person and asked countries to adopt 18 principles laid down in 1991 "to guide countries toward a better life for older persons."
Rawlins says the 18 principles are organised in five "clusters" or concerns including independence, participation, care, self- fulfillment and dignity.
By the year 2005, persons over the age of 60 will account for 20 percent of the population of Trinidad and Tobago; 21.5 percent in Barbados and 14.6 percent in Jamaica.
"This is a huge resource of experienced, gifted and skilled persons, most of whom can be encouraged to contribute to society," Phillips says. "They are, indeed, a source for the salvation of many a young person and not a group for which our main concern should be the number of hospital beds or nursing homes we need to provide."
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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