Senior citizens at an earlier function
Senior citizens at an earlier function

Society must make an effort to treat older persons much better than it now does; abusing older persons is not only a Dominican affliction, it is a world-wide complaint. According to a report produced by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) older persons complain about excessive abuse, usually by relatives who engage in often violent quarrels about properties and assets. Older persons are also neglected and do not feel that society and family members respect them. There are also stories of murders of older persons over allegations of witchcraft.

It is our view that by our treatment of older persons in our community we say rather emphatically that youth is like tomorrow: exciting, sexy and promising; while to be old is to be wrinkled, useless, as impotent as yesterday's news. Action does speak louder than words but we make a serious mistake when we treat our older persons that way.

A few years ago in a speech delivered at the opening of Month of Older Persons, the President of the Commonwealth of Dominica made similar observations when he said that many see aging as "a repulsive process with horrid endings". Society, he added, responds in a way that implies a struggle against aging. Because of that attitude seniors are made to develop a sense of utter uselessness, as if they are burdens to their family and society. Help Age International told us 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.

But there is another more pervasive problem. According to Dr. Joan Rawlings, a retired senior lecturer of The University of the West Indies (UWI) loneliness is one of the major problems affecting all older persons everywhere.

She said: "Older persons in the region, of all class groups, and I mean all class groups complain bitterly of being lonely. The lonely older person might be a middle class retired civil servant, whose children and grandchildren have migrated, or that person might be a top level business man or woman or an academic who has now outlived his or her colleagues or might now be widowed and has fallen prey to the sadness of loneliness. No category is exempt!"

She added: "One woman recently spoke to me of how lonely she had been the previous year on the anniversary of the death of her husband, but this most recent anniversary, she was much comforted by friends she had made in the group."

Dr. Rawlings spoke at the Tenth Annual Bernard A. Sorhaindo Memorial Lecture organised by the UWI on the topic: Ageing in the Caribbean: The Reality, Challenges and Opportunities. And the situation is getting worse; numbers of our senior citizens are increasing and Dominica grapples with a dying economy caused by poor economic planning and the impact of a struggling world economy.

Though statistics on the number of old persons who are below the poverty line in Dominica are not readily available, in developing countries generally older persons are among the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable because governments have not made adequate provision to take care of their old persons. 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. This is due to improvements in sanitation and health as well as to falling fertility rates. 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.

Nevertheless, these numbers that we quoted earlier have caused people here and abroad to claim that the ageing population is a "time bomb" or an "age-quake" with potentially tsunami–like impact on the economy. For example, they fear that social security systems could collapse under the weight of carrying too many old persons. However, we are of the view that our country's alarmingly low production and productivity, as well as the hemorrhaging of our young work force to other countries through immigration are more serious threats to the sustainability of the Dominica Social Security system than the ageing population. The question therefore for Dominica's leaders is how to develop policies aimed at improving the economy so that the country can keep its older persons healthy, integrate them in society and enable them to improve the quality of their lives.

As we observe the Month of Older Persons in September under the theme "Embracing the elderly everywhere" we note that older persons and their representatives continue to call for greater access to health care and social services, income support and an end to abuse.

During the Month of Older Persons we also need to pause to assess how far we have come in our efforts at utilizing the valuable and treasured resource that are our older citizens. One of the messages sent to the media from the Dominica Council on Ageing a few years ago puts this idea rather succinctly. It states: "Our seniors are walking libraries-let us learn from them."

As part of an assessment of our policy towards older persons we suggest the consideration of the enactment, or review, of laws aimed at the protection of older persons. For certainly there should be a law which prescribes severe punishment to persons who are found guilty of stealing from senior citizens. These thieves include so-called "upstanding persons" and especially relatives who take advantage of older persons' senility and loss of memory to grab their property.

In his speech while he was the Head of State, President Eliud Williams made a significant observation. He said the long term solution to the current problems affecting older persons is to take good care of the youth today by promoting healthy lifestyles and social security for all persons including the self-employed. In that way, he said, we will improve the lives of future generations of older persons while preserving their dignity and security. We whole- heartedly agree.