There is this saying, ‘If one wants to know how humane a nation is, examine how it treats its vulnerable groups, especially the disabled, children and the elderly.‘ If you agree with this view, then you are likely to find Guyana seriously wanting. With stunning regularity our children are being abused, meanwhile there is little action taken to indicate or demonstrate our respect, our sense of being indebted to our elderly. Also with embarrassing frequency representatives of the disabled have been complaining about government buildings being constructed that are not disabled-people friendly and about unkept promises to this group. For me, therefore, it is good to witness the level of attention being given to the hopelessly ridiculous pension being offered our elderly. While many on the government side of parliament, offer meaningless observations such as “this is a large amount” and “this is more than they received in 2006,” it is Minister Ali’s comment that is most interesting and in a sense encouraging. This Minister is credited as saying the government is “not satisfied” with what it is offering as old age pension. If we must take him seriously, implicit in his statement is that the government is keen to offer our elderly more, but don’t know how this can be done at this time, assumedly because of financial constraints. This focus on the quantum of the old age pension exclusively is where I think the major mistake is being made.
Both the government and the opposition need to understand that it is unhelpful and insulting for them to continue articulating a view that seems to be suggesting that the needs of the elderly can be taken care of by merely giving them an adequate pension. While striving to offer a better pension to the elderly is both necessary and commendable, it will not lead to a resolution of the many challenges our elderly must grapple with each day. What is needed is for the parliament to articulate a policy and undertake programmes that would, in a holistic manner, seek to offer our senior citizens an overall better life. Such policy and programmes should speak to the following:
a) Enhancing the self esteem of the elderly; helping them to maintain a certain level of independence by making them visible contributors in the process of nation building. To do this, monies could have been provided to the Ministry of Education to pursue initiatives that would allow for the elderly living in the villages, for example, to visit the school/s located in the village from time to time, and speak to students on the history of the village. Also instead of politicians with jaundiced views polluting our minds, have the healthy elderly go to schools and talk to students about life on the estates during the time leading up to and immediately after the incident we now commemorate as Enmore Martyrs’ Day, etc. This way the elderly will be involved in meaningful work, contribute to young people developing a healthy respect for them as a group and rekindle their zest for life, while earning money to supplement their meagre pension.
2) Setting up care homes: Among the elderly are ex-teachers, nurses, social workers, etc, so why have we not embraced a policy of creating day care facilities for the elderly in the villages and wards, which are run by their peers who are likely to exhibit more patience and understanding? Such facilities would reduce the demands placed on facilities’ such as the Palms, Archer’s Home, etc. I suspect that there are persons who live at these homes, not because their children do not want them at their homes, but because children can’t afford to have someone take care of their parents when they are at work. A day care home in the village would provide the elderly with activities; they could organize picnics, visit places of interest, visit other care centres, etc. Such centres in the villages would allow relatives to be assured of their well-being, since they will be in the care of people they know well. Further, these homes could be responsible for producing hand towels and foot mats for schools and health centres in the villages. Here again, this would provide the elderly with the opportunity of earning a little money, while emphasizing their importance to the village.
3) The new policy must demand that forums be created that would enable the elderly to contribute to the creation of both policies and programmes designed to serve their interests. Perhaps this is the most important inclusion. Clearly the shallowness of the provisions outlined for the elderly in the budget and the lack of substance that has characterized the debate so far, reflect a lack of understanding of what concerns the elderly in Guyana today. It also reflects, I think, how we can muddle things when we do not consult in a meaningful and organized way, the persons we are supposed to be catering for. This is best typified by what pensioners have to endure every month at the GPO. Apparently there is a specific date each month on which pensioners can begin to receive their pension. Each month on that day there is a long line of elderly Guyanese standing for hours, awaiting 8am when the GPO will open for business, so that they can be attended to. What nonsense! Certainly somebody at the GPO is aware of this situation? So why can’t we have the cashiers report to work at 7am on this particular day/s and tend exclusively to our elderly? The cost that such an arrangement will attract will be infinitesimal. If the elderly were consulted certainly this discomfort could have been addressed years ago.
Editor, we need to use this occasion in Parliament, to demand that policies be initiated that seek to address in a comprehensive manner, the many problems that our elderly (also other vulnerable groups, like the disabled) face on a daily basis. We can do this, I would be surprised if for example, any of the political parties argue against some of the money gained from the national lottery being used for setting up these day care centres, or for educating and giving skills to the elderly, allowing them to contribute competently to the creation of policy intended to affect their lives. Remember how humane a people are can be judged by examining how they treat the vulnerable groups in their midst.