Archbishop Felix speaks with a centenarian in Soufriere in 2011
Archbishop Felix speaks with a centenarian in Soufriere in 2011

Old age is far more than white hair and wrinkles and weak knees and forgetfulness.

Old age is wisdom and experience; it is resilience and a sense of déjà vu; it is a path that we all look forward to walking with pride and profound accomplishment.

Old age, we should not forget, also means abuse and neglect and unaffordable medical bills.

Maggie Kuhn (1903-1995), the American elder rights activist, once said: "Old age is not a disease. It is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses".

In September each year Dominica acknowledges "the strength and survivorship" of the elderly through the observance of a Month of the Elderly and 2020 is no exception. Thus, the Dominica Council on Ageing (DCOA) has presented a COVID19- influenced programme to celebrate ageing, to highlight its programme of activities and, we sincerely hope, to bring to the fore the serious issues affecting older persons in our society. Understandably, this year's theme is: "The Elderly-Surviving the Pandemic".

One month is, of course, more than enough time to talk about how shameful many of us should feel for treating older people the way that we do. And as we said in an earlier editorial, the Month of the Elderly could be a period when we remind ourselves that each one of us must make a greater effort at treating older persons much better than we currently do. Foremost among our catharsis as a nation is the curbing of elderly abuse in our communities.

Abusing older persons is not only a Dominican abomination; it is a world-wide complaint. A report produced by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) says that older persons complain about excessive abuse, usually by relatives who engage in often violent verbal and physical fights about houses and land and bank accounts. Older persons are also neglected and do not feel that society and family members respect them.

But in spite of the large amount of work that is still left to be done in the recognition of elderly persons, make no mistake that, mainly though the work of the DCOA over many years, there has been greater awareness of the issues affecting older persons in Dominica. Dominicans are now much more aware of the various forms of abuse of the elderly-sexual, physical, emotional and, most importantly, neglect and loneliness.

Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that we talk too much and act too little about the problems affecting elder persons. For instance, where are the laws that should criminalize physical and other abuses of older persons- and if these laws currently exist, what are we doing to enforce them? Where is the outrage when older persons live alone in dilapidated shacks without electricity or running water? Why are the sidewalks in the capital city, after decades of talk and promises, still one of the most dangerous places for the elderly?

Help Age International has stated that older persons face a number of issues including chronic illness, limited access to health care and medication, poor housing, lack of economic security and livelihoods, social isolation, neglect and abuse. And the situation is getting worse. As Dominica grapples with a dying economy caused by poor economic planning and execution, the impact of a struggling world economy, the devastating effects of natural disasters such as Tropical Storm Erika (2015) Hurricanes David (1979) and Maria (2017) and COVID-19 we must acknowledge that elders face a greater threat.

Although statistics on the number of old persons who are currently below the poverty line in Dominica are not readily available, in developing countries generally older persons are among the poorest of the poor. Help Age estimates that worldwide more than 100 million older persons now live on less than US$1 a day. Dominica's population is ageing because more and more persons are living longer lives while the youth and middle age migrate.

But we must note that Dominica has the distinction of having the highest number of centenarians per capita in the world. At the last count there were 26 centenarians in a population of less than 70,000. This is due to our natural way of living and, no doubt about it, the resilience of our older folk who walked a lot, ate a lot of natural foods and loved their neighbours as themselves-a lot.

Thanks to the DCOA, Dominicans are kept aware of this extraordinary phenomenon but we continue to wonder: what is keeping the Discover Dominica Authority (DDA) from including Dominica's centenarian miracle in its promotion of our tourism product.

Worldwide there are 800 million persons who are 60 years and over and that figure is expected to double by the year 2025 and reach one billion by 2050. In Dominica, the figure has been estimated at 13.5 percent of the population. We anticipate that the census data, whenever it is released, will shed some light on the actual status of Dominica's older persons.

But the issue goes deeper. Officials of the DCOA will tell you, in their moments of candor that their organisation is doing the best that it can, under trying financial and human resource conditions. Government is helping somewhat, as it must, but that help is woefully inadequate for such a crucially important organisation. The DCOA needs better offices with conference facilities, a care and recreational centre and more professionals committed to perform the crucial work of the organisation.

The DCOA itself must also move more aggressively to face its challenges head-on; it must design and articulate its vision for the next decade; it must move beyond just organizing and implementing a few annual activities like the Month of the Elderly; it must work with government and civil society to harness the experience and power of senior citizens; and it must become an active inspiration for the elderly disadvantaged.