Hardly a week passes without someone bemoaning, in one form or another, the plight of the elderly (persons 60 years and over).  Numerous unfulfilled promises have been made by governments to this group – about 60,000 people; about 8% of the population – that should be seen as being very important in a competitive liberal democratic state. A few months ago, after years of planning but little having been done, we heard that the government was apparently planning afresh!  In relation the elderly, I have argued that ‘it is incumbent upon any social group that wishes to safeguard its interest to establish its own independent organisation to mobilise, articulate and struggle for that interest’ (SN: 12/09/2012). But recently, I came upon a discourse that reinforces my belief that, in our ethnic political context, improvements in the condition of the elderly will not be the result of independent group action but will depend upon the benevolence of governments.

In considering the conditions of the elderly, whether or not it is indented to constitute a sort of minimum wage, one of the first concerns is the apparent inadequacy of the old age pension. Compared to the minimum wage, which has increased about 16 fold in the modern democratic period beginning in 1992, old age pension has increased about 80 fold, but this does not mean it is adequate.  Furthermore, properly taking care of the elderly involves more than providing a pension, and both the past and present governments know this and have made many national and international commitments that have remained unfulfilled. 

Yet, lo and behold, a few months ago, we were told by the director of social services that, ‘The Ministry of Social Protection will be developing a National Policy on Aging, with the aim of achieving the cultural, social and economic reintegration of older persons into the mainstream of society’ (SN: 14/03/2018).  It was as if the director had forgotten that only last year his ministry stated that in collaboration with the Pan American Health Organisation it was in the process of devising a strategic plan to deal with the condition of the elderly, and also that in 2012, as part of an international process, Guyana’s National Report on Aging (GNRA) made commitments, the vast majority of which have not materialised.  To refresh our memories, I am again repeating a brief of these.

‘Our governments committed to promote the human rights of older persons: improve their access to justice, develop laws to protect their physical and mental integrity, safeguard their property and help them remain at home in old age. A bill of rights for the elderly was to be enacted and their participation as a specific interest group in development planning and physical access to all public buildings assured. There were to be minimum standards for institutional care and treatment: the compilation of standard operational procedures to deal with acceptance in such institutions and conflict resolution and abuse were to be developed. A new state of the art home that also provides day services was to aid in improving the living conditions of the elderly.

The aged were to be provided with opportunities for lifelong learning and activities that promote dependency prevention by undertaking campaigns to, for example, promote healthy ageing and early screening programmes for diabetes, hypertension, chronic illnesses and degenerative diseases.  Eighty percent of older persons were to have an advanced awareness about sexual and reproductive health, the incidence of neglect, the paucity of goods and services, and support including hot meals and trained caregivers to provide home-based care and do other personal chores for those persons living alone and/or who are shut-ins were to be provided. All staff were to be adequately certified and training customized to help caregivers and families cope with Alzheimer’s, dementia, arthritis, cancer, osteoporosis, etc.

Decent and adequate work was to be provided by expanding and mainstreaming retirement planning in all public institutions and addressing the monetary and social requirements of retirement.  A national inter-sectoral plan that streamlined all the rights of the elderly within all related ministries and an intersectional committee on ageing to provide oversight of the implementation process were to be key priorities’ (‘Planning for the elderly again:’ SN: 17/05/2017). 

One reason the elderly are treated so shabbily is that although the institutional trappings of such a society exist, and many people actually believe that they live in one and therefore make their analyses along these lines, Guyana is not a competitive liberal democratic society. When ethnicity is the main determinant of how about 80% of the population cast their votes, one soon grasps that the level of individual policy swing, .i.e. swing votes, does not exist for Guyana to be classified as such a society. If this were not so, as a group the elderly, with their significant theoretical electoral clout, would have long developed their own independent institutions to force their agenda.

Generally, the elderly are thought to be the most conservative of social groups, but in most liberal democratic societies they quickly organise themselves. Not so in Guyana: although their interests are perennially being neglected, no one ever even perceives, as they do elsewhere and as they do of the young in Guyana, that the elderly can be radicalized to go beyond ethnic voting. On the contrary, there are many humorous stories of parents and grandparents reminding their offspring ‘where to put the vote’.

Briefly, it is now being suggested that this conservatism increases as the clock winds down toward death.  It is said that the 42.8 milliseconds that the word ‘death’ flashes across our computer screen is sufficient to make us act differently. ‘When reminded of death, we treat those who are similar to us in looks, political slant, geographic origin and religious beliefs more favourably. We become more contemptuous and violent towards people who do not share those similarities. We profess a deeper commitment to romantic partners who validate our worldviews. And we are more inclined to vote for heavy-handed charismatic leaders who incite fear of outsiders’ (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180618-what-if-we-knew-when-we-were-going-to-die).

Interest in how people deal with the potentially overwhelming anxiety and dread that come with the realisation that we are nothing more than what he referred to as ‘breathing, defecating, self-conscious pieces of meat that can die at any time’ led Sheldon Solomon, a psychology professor at New York’s Skidmore College, to develop ‘terror management theory’. More than 1,000 peer-reviewed experiments showed that when reminded that we are going to die, we cling harder to foundational cultural beliefs and strive to boost our sense of self-worth. We also become more defensive of our beliefs and react with hostility to anything that threatens them. However, researchers also found that as we are learning creative beings, different contexts could breed quite different behaviour.

These theories appear to add to our understanding of elderly conservatism which in an ethnically divided society such as ours severely restricts their capacity to drive their own agenda. Also of interest, in recent times many elderly persons are being catapulted into senior government positions and perhaps we need to consider more carefully how this may be impacting government policy and what is the correct proportional mix of youth to the elderly that is necessary, if only to prevent such policies from becoming myopic and uncompassionate.


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