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Jamaica must prepare for its ageing population

Wayne Campbell

Monday, October 21, 2019

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Old age hath yet his honour and his toil. — Alfred Lord Tennyson

The global population is ageing rapidly. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, discussing ageing between 2015 and 2030, the number of people age 60 and over is expected to increase from 901 million to 1.4 billion. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of elderly or older person, but like many Westernised concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa.

The WHO states that while this definition is arbitrary it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin to receive pension benefits. At the moment, there is no United Nations (UN) standard numerical criterion, but the UN agreed cut-off is 60+ years to refer to the older population.

The ageing process is a biological reality. Age discrimination is real and happens in almost every society and in every profession. In many instances, once you are 50 years or older your chances of getting a promotion decreases significantly. In some jurisdictions there are legislation to address age discrimination; unfortunately, in most developing and underdeveloped societies there is no such protection or safety net for the aged.

It is important to note that the UN 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognise that development will only be achievable if it is inclusive of all ages. UN SDG number 10 speaks to the reduction of inequality within and among countries. Target 10:2 of SDG #10 states “by 2030 empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or economic or other status”.

While many heads of government travel annually to New York to represent their country's progress towards achieving the UN SDGs, very few have attained that inclusiveness in society. Sadly, for too many countries inclusiveness is still a far way off.

The issue of ageing is very close to home. As the primary person with oversight for health care for my father, Fitzroy, age 85, my knowledge is a first-hand account of how important it is for me to empower him and provide opportunities for him to be useful and productive in and around the home. It bears thought that without my dad having these opportunities to feel a part of the family and the wider community his health would have deteriorated faster. It is critical that we empower older people in all dimensions of development, including promoting their active participation in the social, economic, and political spheres in order to reduce inequalities. Regrettably, too often the issues concerning older people are not readily discussed. Additionally, when such issues are deliberated they are not given the attention they deserve.

Jamaica has a long way to go to effectively tackle ageism. In Jamaica, there is a Green Paper on the National Policy for Senior Citizens. It says, “the programmes and initiatives of the senior citizen have been governed by the landmark National Policy for Senior Citizens (1997), which is administered through the National Council for Senior Citizens under the governance of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. The 2011 Population and Housing Census for Jamaica identifies 323,500 Jamaicans as aged 60 years and above as senior citizens, representing almost 12 per cent of the total population. In 2015, the Economic Social Survey of Jamaica published that the cohort of Jamaicans age 60 and over amounted to 241,200 of the population, representing 12.6 per cent of the populace.

To make matters worse, Jamaicans are not saving as much as we ought to. This disturbing fact was revealed in a World Bank study. The World Bank indicates that Jamaica's gross national savings, as a percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) for 2016, was 7.8 per cent. In The Bahamas, the figure was 19.2 per cent; while in St Kitts and Nevis the figure stood at 26.5 per cent; and for China it was 46.5 per cent.

It is evident that Jamaica's population is ageing which is similar to what is taking place on the international scene. As a result of advances in technology and medicine people are living longer and are living more productive lives. This trend clearly points to the challenges which the society must first realise and secondly work to address. Two of the most pressing challenges of growing old are affordable housing and the ever-increasing cost of health care and prescription drugs.

Affordable housing

Online source The Economic Times defines affordable housing as referring to housing units that are affordable by that section of society whose income is below the median household income. In other words, affordable housing should address the housing needs of the middle- and lower-income households.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) states that families who pay more than 30 per cent of their income for housing are considered cost-burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care. HUD acknowledges that an estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 per cent of their annual income for housing.

In Jamaica the situation regarding homeownership is dire. In an article published in The Sunday Gleaner of June 3, 2018 it was revealed that 500,000 to one million Jamaicans are squatters. In the same article it stated that the Government was preparing to spend $37 million to undertake a comprehensive census to determine the number of squatters and to assess the characteristics and scope of informal settlements in Jamaica.

Squatting is the illegal occupation of land. This is a cause for concern for successive governments; however, nothing tangible has been implemented to discourage the practice. We must examine the reality in Jamaica that the National Minimum Wage is $7,000 and the daily wage is $1,650. This therefore means that a significant section of the skilled and unskilled population are not earning enough to benefit from the National Housing Trust (NHT). It gets worse because even professionals such as nurses and teachers cannot afford to purchase a home on their own. Therefore, when many of these Jamaicans get to old age the lack of affordable housing will be a serious issue. Many Jamaicans have to choose between paying rent or purchasing food and medication. Unsurprisingly, many resort to finding somewhere to occupy and join the thousands who are already squatting in the many informal settlements across Jamaica. Additionally, less than 20 per cent of employed Jamaicans are covered by a private pension scheme, this according to the Financial Services Commission. Growing old in Jamaica is rather scary!

National health insurance

Jamaica does not have a universal health insurance scheme for its citizens. The lack of a national insurance programme for all Jamaicans runs counter to UN SDG #10 of inclusiveness in society. As a result, many Jamaicans, especially older Jamaicans, are excluded from accessing health care, which is costly. Successive governments since political independence in 1962 have given lip service regarding the need for a national insurance scheme. Sadly, this is still a dream.

We live in an age in which more and more people are living beyond “three scores and 10”. With longevity comes the possibility of being diagnosed with non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers. With inequitable access to health care the quality of our lives will be greatly diminished as we age.

The Jamaican society, and indeed the international community, continues to marginalise older people. This is unacceptable, especially in an age of modernity. A society which fails to put in place a comprehensive national health care system and affordable housing will not be able to achieve sustainable development for all.

Whether you admit to it or not, we are all marching towards old age. Our policymakers need to redouble their efforts in ensuring that there is neither inequity nor discrimination against older Jamaicans. There is an urgent need to engage the society with the aim of returning to the time in our culture when respect for the aged was evident and promoted through all aspects of our culture. Our stakeholders are tasked with an awesome but not impossible responsibility to ensure that the quality of life for Jamaicans over 60 years old is as comfortable as humanly possible.

Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days. — Job 12:12

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. Send comments to the Observer to waykam@yahoo.com.


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