We all know the saying “getting old is a privilege.” Experience shows that it can be a privilege but it can also be terrifying. For many people, life is shaped by struggles, which are necessary for growth, but making it to an age where you are considered among the ranks of the elderly could feel like a greater achievement rather than just the natural progression. The passing of many young people is also a factor in this. For some, the reality of youth slipping away is unnerving. The possibility of loneliness, rejection and a virtually invisible existence is not appealing. Many are lucky to escape such fates and instead are surrounded by the love of their relatives and friends. Many illuminate the lives of those they come in contact with. Some of my fondest memories are of older relatives who engaged me in fascinating stories about the past and through their recollections, I experienced the world before I came into existence or was fully conscious about what life was.
October 1st was International Day of the Elderly, which was created by the United Nations. In Guyana, we have expanded on that and made all of October the month of the elderly. It is a time to honour our seniors and a great initiative that should remind those of us blessed with living, older relatives to celebrate them in every way we can.
There is a National Commission for the Elderly, which operates under the authority of the Ministry of Social Protection. They began this month with religious services and have plans for television and radio appearances, a concert that will feature the elderly on the 15th at the Umana Yana, outings and brunches.
The commission is involved in community outreaches and is devoted to bringing attention to the needs of the mature population. Better health care, better living conditions, activities to enhance their lives and recognition of their contributions to our society are among some of those needs.
It is no secret that many of our elders are neglected. Some folks believe that there are seniors who use aging as an excuse to become troublesome and deliberately set out to make the lives of caretakers difficult. But often when such a conclusion is reached, the impact of factors, such as mental health, is not fully taken into consideration. This informs us that public education on how to treat and care for our elders is urgent. Many of them face diseases, such as dementia, which upturns their lives. It is difficult to see them lose their memory, operate in a state of confusion, and deal with the complications of not seeing the world the way they are used to as their health deteriorates.
The older people become, the more prone they are to developing certain illnesses. This is one reason why the National Insurance Scheme not lending support for illnesses acquired after the age of 60 makes no sense. According to the National Commission for the Elderly, in 2007 a recommendation was made by a reform committee to change this but nine years later there has been no change. Is this a case of saving pennies, while those who cannot afford to pay for health care suffer?
Many of our seniors are also abused verbally and physically. Some are kicked out of their homes and left to the mercy of the streets. Some live in nursing homes, which is sometimes their choice and sometimes a decision is made by relatives who do not have the time needed to care for them. The National Commission for the Elderly visits nursing homes and aims to get Guyana to a place where all such establishments, whether private or public, offer the best care possible.
Caring for the elderly is everybody’s business. As a society, we need to look out for them. Their vulnerability leaves them open to many disadvantages. There are instances where senior citizens are even robbed by members of their own families. Some even steal the pensions they receive from the government.
The National Commission for the Elderly visits post offices on days when seniors are collecting their pensions to observe the conditions under which they are made to wait. From those observations, recommendations are made to the ministry as to how things can improve. One story related to me was told about a man who was too sick to collect his pension for a long time. His son took on the responsibility and would give his father five thousand dollars every month. The man would give him back a thousand dollars as a thank you. There came a day when the man could finally make it to collect his pension and when he received his money he felt that the employee was robbing herself. When she explained that the pension was correct, he wept.
When I was growing up, I was encouraged to have children. One of the reasons was so that when I became old I would have someone to help take care of me. It is really not the sole reason or maybe should not even be a reason people have children. The sad reality is that having children does not guarantee that when old age catches up with you, you will have company or that your children will honour you. The story of the gentleman and his son is an example.
Relationships between parents and children are sometimes so damaged that there seems to be no hope for reconciliation. Many parents who reject their children when they are young are neglected in their old age. Factors, such as death, migration, marriage and even the simple fact that some folks simply do not want the responsibility of taking care of the elderly, also separate the aged from their children. Many grieve for the love they may have imagined receiving in their old age.
Many long for something to do – a reason to say that their life still has value. These are concerns of the National Commission for the Elderly and plans are in the making to create spaces where seniors could have a place where they can go and be reminded that their lives are meaningful. Recreational facilities for socialising, learning and even bridging that gap between the old and young is not only a brilliant idea but can save and extend the life of many senior citizens who would otherwise die of grief.
Our seniors are the reflection of what we will and can become. When we mistreat them, we are setting ourselves up for the consequences of karma. Some of us do not imagine ourselves being old, but as sure as the sun rises and sets, the aging process will carry on. As we continue to celebrate the month of the elderly, let us try to build a new appreciation of their lives and the sacrifices they made for their families and for the country. The National Commission for the Elderly will continue to work for the holistic improvement of the lives of the old, but the responsibility is not theirs alone.