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Tuesday 18 December 2018
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Commentary

A tree cannot stand without roots

Culture Matters

DARA E HEALY

I WATCHED the elderly gentleman collect his money from the bank teller. He carefully wrapped the large bundle of notes in a bag and put it in his pocket. Frail and humbly attired, he walked out of the bank with the tentative gait common in older people. I wondered if he would make it safely to his destination; I hoped that he would.

Abuse of our elders is, sadly, not a new phenomenon. For more than ten years, Dr Jennifer Rouse has been a powerful advocate for an end to elder abuse and greater care for the elderly. But have we listened?

For me, the non-licensing of the homes is only part of the problem. This bureaucratic lapse is symptomatic of the way that corruption, mismanagement and dishonest practices have become woven into the fabric of public behaviour.

We accept these behaviours like potholes, no pipe-borne water in a nation surrounded by the ocean, and incompetent contractors. We shrug our shoulders and raise our hands to demonstrate “well that is how it is.”

Still, we celebrate when someone reaches 100 years of age, or acknowledge our artists, scientists and other citizens for their achievements. But are older people truly integrated into our society? Are returning residents included in a retirement structure that considers “pension-related matters, social security concerns, and – most importantly – health and healthcare?”

Additionally, although countless policies have been written, why has so little been done to afford more dignity to seniors through employment, mentorship or community programmes? Free bus passes aside, do we hear enough language that promotes respect and care for elders across our institutions?

Thus, for me the question goes beyond why almost none of the homes for the aged are licensed or properly monitored. What we should be interrogating is why does a country with our size of population need so many “old people” homes?

Further, in spite of a collective understanding of indigenous values like extended families and the role of a council of elders, how do we still manage to get it so wrong when it comes to older people?

The phenomenon of ageing is here to stay. In TT and across the Caribbean, our populations are getting older due to a number of factors. Life expectancy is one. Research indicates that in the 1940s “life expectancy for men in Trinidad was 53 years, and for women it was 56 years.”

Today, it is expected that people will live to 70 years of age. Indeed, a 2015 UN report has estimated that “the percentage of persons in Trinidad and Tobago aged 60 years and over is projected to be 28 per cent in 2050 and will continue to grow.”

Lower fertility rates are another significant factor. The pressures of finances, modern lifestyles and loss of family networks are some of the considerations for couples having less and less children.

Experts caution that while this may place less of a burden on social and economic systems, declining births also point to a decreasing workforce. Governments will then need to develop programmes to manage an ageing population.

However, I firmly believe that this is skewed thinking, driven by western-styled economics and values. What if we were to turn this kind of language on its head and draw from ancient teachings like the Congolese proverb “a tree cannot stand without its roots.”

Rather than assume that older people are a drain on resources, should we not go beyond symbolic celebrations and tap into their knowledge and abilities?

Instead of enforcing a retirement age that has lost its relevance to how people now age, why not look at solutions for older people such as phased retirement, “generation-gap” programmes in our educational institutions, volunteering, or mentoring.

Loneliness, depression and suicide are rampant in our society amongst youth and ageing populations alike. Why not look critically at our needs and create interventions that make sense for us, and that would add value to our society. And yes, even save us money.

Lately, I have been observing the ageing of people around me. They move a bit slower, ramble sometimes and delay when you need to rush off. But their understanding of the world emanates from a breadth of experience that only the aged can have.

In our search for solutions, we must aim for a reality where I do not have to wonder whether the senior citizen walking out of the bank would be safe. Instead, I should smile because I know that he will not be victimised, simply because he has aged.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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