WHILE moderating a virtual panel discussion on education, hosted by Tobago Writers’ Guild, last November, retired head of the public service Reginald Dumas learnt what he considered to be a disturbing truth.
A young participant offering his views on the issue, told panellists he felt rootless in the society. Some of his peers agreed with him.
Dumas said the admission was an eye-opener.
“I know there are a lot of older people in the society who are left by themselves and feel lonely, people whose partners have died and their children gone away. But I didn’t realise that this feeling of rootlessness and drifting also affected young people,” he said in a Sunday Newsday interview.
After the forum, Dumas said, he thought long and hard about the young man’s statement
“I figured Tobago society could deteriorate if both young and old feel like they don’t know what they are doing.”
Weeks later, he raised the issue with noted educator and former independent senator Dr Eastlyn Mc Kenzie, retired nurse Margaret Wright and retired chemical engineer Mervyn O’Neil during a meeting at his home in January.
Tobago CivilNET/Writers’ Guild member Rodney Piggott, who had worked with elders in the US, also attended.
The meeting led to the formation of the Tobago Council of Elders.
But Dumas recalled that the concept was raised several years ago when a man from Castara compiled a document which he had passed on to him.
He said in the document, the man had mentioned the possibility of establishing a Tobago Council of Elders.
Dumas said the small group resolved to respond decisively to the young man’s statement.
While it may not be the panacea for the perceived disconnect between the older citizens and the young people, he believes an elders council can be a good starting point in bridging the gap.
Dumas said elders councils are a common feature of community life in many parts of the world.
He added, “We felt that an elders’ council, not that we know more than anybody else. But because of our age, we have a longer experience than younger people. They may be technologically more advanced but in terms of life we are expected to know a bit more than they do and we could have a meeting of the minds.
“The idea is to do something for the society as a whole. To pass the baton to the younger people.”
He said the council has since had several meetings with young people at the Scarborough Library.
They also paid a courtesy call to THA Chief Secretary Farley Augustine on July 8.
“We made it clear that we were a civil society group and we were not taking any directions or instructions from any political grouping or party. We are willing to work with the THA or any other organisation “pointing in the same direction.”
On July 28, they also met with Geoffrey Lewis, an executive member of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Retired Persons to discuss the initiative.
Dumas said the young people’s contributions during the sessions were insightful. They talked about the importance of education, the need to know more about Tobago’s history and the erosion of value systems.
There was also a feeling that, unlike years gone by, knowledge was not being passed on from one generation to the next.
He recalled a time when the roles of the grandmother and extended family were extremely significant in the society.
“But the family has become largely nuclear now.”
Dumas said the young people also spoke about the need for more family time and the promotion of an overall vision for collaboration that Tobagonians can buy into.
The importance of literacy also came up in the discussion.
“A lot of people can’t read and write properly and if that is the case what are you doing for socio-economic development.”
The council felt that these issues will help them to connect better with the society “instead of just spending time using their thumbs on a cellphone.”
They also believe that communities have become split because of party politics.
“The people holding the keys to the village community hall are people who belong to the party in office.”
Dumas said the council plans to address solutions to some of these issues at its next meeting with the young people on August 18 at the Scarborough Library.
They have also received a bi-monthly slot on Wednesdays on Tobago Updates to discuss pertinent issues relating to the development of the island. The council’s first session is on August 17.
He said the council is still an informal body but they plan to register as a non-governmental organisation in the near future.
Dumas said the idea is to have a pool of reliable people who can be relied upon to assist with issues in communities, sometimes at a moment’s notice.
“If something comes up in L’anse Fourmi, it might be difficult to jump in a car in Scarborough to drive out there. So there should be people in the area who could sit with the people and discuss it.”
Dumas believes there are many able-bodied, older people in the society who are still willing to make a contribution.
In this regard, he took issue with statements made by the chief secretary, towards the end of the Tobago budget debate in June, which gave the impression that people above age 60 should simply stay at home and mind their grandchildren.
Dumas said while Augustine may have been referring to older people in the THA who had reached retirement age, it came across as him criticising older people generally.
“A lot of older people in Tobago and even in Trinidad, were offended.”
He said although this may not have been Augustine’s intention, “It shows the importance again of what I have always said, that in life what you say is not as crucial as how you say it. The chief secretary’s statement came over as an attack or criticism of older people generally.”
Looking ahead, Dumas believes that the country and indeed, other territories, especially in the developing world, could consider establishing a Commissioner of Future Generations as currently obtains in Wales, Europe
Israel, Hungary and Canada have also toyed with the idea.
The idea behind the position is to set up a framework for the development of communities that extends beyond the term of sitting governments.
For example, Dumas said climate change will not stop when the term of a government ends. Rather, he said it is an ongoing issue.
Noting that populations are also ageing in the developed and developing world, Dumas said, “You have to look down the road as to what you are educating people for. It is not just about passing exams but building on the society they will be inheriting from whomever has gone before.
He said the United Nations has already supported the idea.
Dumas believes a delegate from Trinidad can be sent to Wales for a short time to observe the structure of the office of the Commissioner for Future Generations.
“So it will be looking at the needs of the future generation as opposed to what can be done to get votes for the next general election.”