Are we doing enough to protect the elderly?

Elderly men among the homeless outside a bank in Port of Spain on June 6, 2021. - PHOTO BY SUREASH CHOLAI
Elderly men among the homeless outside a bank in Port of Spain on June 6, 2021. - PHOTO BY SUREASH CHOLAI

One of my granddaughters works with one of the largest trade-union organisations in Ontario, so we always have a lot to talk about, as the Ontario Labour Relations Board is a good source of information on alternative news, issues and views in the employment and labour field. Ontario’s labour legislation is based on the same ILO and common-law principles as ours and that of most Commonwealth countries, so is a useful comparative resource.

Currently, the Ontario Department of Labour, as is its customary courteous practice, has sent around for comment to trade unions, employers’ organisations, residents and employees of retirement and long-term care homes, organisations of retired people and other stakeholders, a bill now facing its second reading in its parliament. The Fixing Long Term Care Act 2021, if it goes through, will also amend the Retirement Homes Act 2010.

I would be really interested in finding out what legislative measures are in train, or even being thought of here, to help the elderly and indigent. TT’s Association of Retired Persons would be the logical body expected to advocate that kind of government support, as the pandemic has impoverished so many.

In the 1990s, someone from the compliance department of the National Insurance Board came to the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights to ask for help. He told me they were finding many disabled elderly people were being deprived of their pension cheques when they authorised a child or grandchild to collect their cheque for them. The child then, with a letter to the bank giving them permission to do so on behalf of the relative, cashed the cheque and spent the proceeds, saying: "I am supporting you. You don’t need the money, I do,” leaving them vulnerable and helpless, with no income, no hope, no dignity.

So we started SEAN – Stop Elderly Abuse Now. We had a list of 1,000 elderly care homes in Trinidad. None was established, registered or maintained by government. When there was nowhere else to go and no family support, that is where the elderly went, hoping what they had saved, or their NIS pensions, would be accepted. There were several charity-supported ones run by people who genuinely took care of them with help from the mandir, mosque, NGO or church. Some were run by other elderly people who had a home, with no other source of income.

Others were places of squalor where medications were not administered, linens not laundered, incontinent patients left to lie in their own excrement, and nutrition once a day – fast food served by untrained, uncaring below-minimum-wage part-timers.

SEAN assisted lonely, isolated and abused elderly people and tried to monitor homes and ensure sanitary conditions. SEAN was funded by the Joseph Fernandes Trust until that ceased and government promised replacement funding which never materialised. So, unable to pay staff, it closed. The replacement functions were not taken over by government.

Elderly people are the most discriminated-against people in our world’s materialistic and monetarist societies. Unless they have money or property someone else wants.

The new Ontario legislation proved as necessary there as it is here. Over 70,000 Canadians live in 626 long-care homes in Ontario alone. Some, although financed by the state, had not been monitored for many years and it was only when the covid pandemic hit and 85 per cent of the resultant deaths in the first year occurred in these homes that anyone in authority took notice.

The “care” homes in Canada, unlike in TT, are all government-supported. But salaries are minimum wages there, as they are here, forcing many staff to work in two homes (two shifts) to make ends meet. It is reported that staff are so tired they are often unable to provide even the statutory four hours of service to each patient in their contracts.

Several labour disputes referred to me have arisen here as a result of the demand that employees in homes for the aged mandatorily accept anti-covid vaccination. The demands in three such homes have followed staff refusal to do so after the deaths from covid19 of several of their elderly patients.

If they are fired as a consequence, trade disputes result. Few people then lined up, either here or in Canada, to replace them, and those who did were untrained and uncertified, with no training. As public awareness in Ontario mounted, the Long Term Covid19 Care Commission was set up, with its own minister of state, and corrective action began. That did not happen here.

In TT, for the elderly, there is a Senior Citizens Pension Act which can provide monetary help…more than is provided in law for those who have worked all their adult lives and paid NIS contributions, which is a little strange; but access to it is bureaucratic, and I don’t know how that elderly couple on the pavement would know how to access it, or the help that, theoretically, anyway, is legislated under the Local Public Assistance Act. That act establishes public assistance boards which, according to the law, have been set up in each district to specifically help the poor in situations like theirs.

So, calling on behalf of the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights, I phoned the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services to find out what shelters for the aged and homeless, through public assistance, the government has established. The ministry answered my call with an American-accented recorded assurance that it was there for “empowering, helping and transforming lives.” I tried e-mailing in case the homeless elderly we see sleeping on the streets have cellphones and internet access, as we are now a digital society. Or so we are told.

As usual with government ministries, there was no one to answer the phone at any of its divisions, nor free internet response access. Not at the divisions of Ageing, nor Family Services, nor Social Welfare, nor Disabilities Affairs, nor National Social Development. I tried them all.

Does anyone know how to contact them? Do you have to know someone who knows someone?


"Are we doing enough to protect the elderly?"

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