Spotlight on our bedrock — Jamaica's seniors


Spotlight on our bedrock — Jamaica's seniors

Jean Lowrie-Chin

Monday, September 28, 2020

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Jamaica's National Council for Senior Citizens, with offices in every parish of Jamaica, continues to work at full steam despite the challenges of COVID-19. Under the leadership of Executive Director Cassandra Morrison, it has launched a series of events to celebrate Senior Citizens Week, starting yesterday with National Grandparents' Day, National Church Service, at Phillippo Baptist Church.

The Mona Wellness & Ageing Centre, led by Professor Denise Eldemire Shearer; Alzheimer's Jamaica, led by Dr Albert Chen; and STRIDE Jamaica, led by Dr Ishtar Govia have been giving invaluable support to the elderly, their families and caregivers. Let me share some key points from a 2012 presentation by Professor Eldemire Shearer. The professor, honorary chair of the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP), explained that these preliminary findings were from a study entitled 'Ageing in Jamaica today and the implications' over a one-year period. It involved a survey of 2,943 seniors in Kingston, St Andrew, St Catherine, and St Thomas and was carried out by the Mona Ageing and Wellness Centre and funded by the National Health Fund. Those interviewed ranged in age from 60 to 103 years, with the group's average age being 72.2 years.

Professor Eldemire Shearer noted that population ageing (older people as an increasingly larger proportion of the population) was taking place worldwide at an unprecedented and pervasive rate. Individuals 60 years and older represented eight per cent of world population in 1950 and 10 per cent in 2000, she noted, and were projected to account for 21 per cent by 2050.

Health and welfare

“Population ageing brings a number of challenges related to health and welfare,” she noted, “so documenting and understanding these are critical to the development of appropriate responses.” The professor told the CCRP members and friends that of those surveyed by the Mona Ageing and Wellness Centre, 52 per cent were female. The majority had children alive — only 7.4 per cent did not. Most (82.9 per cent) enjoyed a good relationship with children, and more females than males had these good relationships. The majority (71.7 per cent) of our senior citizens own their own homes, and most report being financially independent.

Chronic diseases are a challenge for this age group, defined as 60 years and older by the United Nations. Among Jamaican seniors, 65.4 per cent suffer from either diabetes or hypertension and 22 per cent have both. These are some of the comorbidities referred to by Chief Medical Officer Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie, which put seniors at higher risk of serious illness if they become infected with the novel coronavirus.

The professor pointed out that several ailments were showing a marked increase in 2012 compared to a similar survey in 1990: Prevalence of high blood pressure rose from 42.6 per cent to 61.3 per cent; diabetes from 10.2 per cent to 26.2 per cent; stroke from 5.1 per cent to 8.2 per cent; heart disease from 5.4 per cent to 5.5 per cent; and glaucoma from 4.9 per cent to 11.6 per cent. However, the prevalence of arthritis decreased from 40.0 per cent to 35 per cent.

In addition, five per cent of those surveyed in 2012 reported suffering from cancer, 55.4 per cent said they were bothered by joint pain, and 21.7 per cent had been involved in a fall within the previous six months. Of the latter, the majority (54.3 per cent) had fallen at home. Injuries sustained over that year were reported by 9.7 per cent of the seniors surveyed. Of these, 74.8 per cent had received medical care for their injuries, and more than half (53.6 per cent) had been injured at home.

From personal experience, I cannot warn our seniors enough that they should wear safe shoes or secure sandals even around the house —my rubber flip-flops tripped me in my yard, and thank goodness I have now fully recovered from a broken wrist.

Most of those surveyed were able to function mentally: Some 11 per cent were severely impaired and 38.5 per cent had mild impairment. Less than one in 10 (8.7 per cent) had hearing problems; 32.3 per cent had eye problems, 7.5 per cent had a physical disability; and more 17.5 per cent used assistive devices such as canes or walkers.

Financial challenges

Most of the seniors (72 per cent) reported having only primary level education, while 17 per cent reported having secondary/technical/vocational schooling, and 5.3 per cent had been to university. Less than six per cent reported no formal schooling. Professor Eldemire Shearer reported that most of the seniors interviewed functioned well physically. Less than one in 100 (0.8 per cent) were fully dependent regarding basic activities; 92.7 per cent were independent in all basic functions (an increase over the 88.5 per cent reported in the 1990 survey), and approximately 7.3 per cent needed various levels of assistance.

Asked how they planned for retirement, 16.8 per cent reported doing so with a health plan; 24.7 per cent with savings, and 9.9 per cent through investments. When asked about current sources of income, seniors reported that 13.5 per cent were earning wages; 27.3 per cent were receiving National Insurance Scheme (NIS) payments; 48.5 per cent were being assisted by their families; 8.2 per cent were on the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH); 15.4 per cent had Jamaican government pensions; and 9.1 per cent had private pensions.

Eldemire Shearer urged all individuals to consider what their needs in old age would be, regarding financial independence, daily personal and community support, caregivers and health requirements. This was especially important, she noted, for those who were single and lived alone.

In a later presentation, she referred to a study by Dr Kayon Donaldson-Davis on retirement financial literacy levels among Jamaicans at Mona Ageing & Wellness Centre. It notes, “Although the general literacy rate (ability to read and write at a sixth-grade level or higher) of Jamaicans is 89 per cent, the number of people who are adequately prepared financially is not comparable... Approximately 71 per cent of respondents, who reported high levels of financial distress and low financial well-being, had not received financial information about retirement planning.”

Dr Julian McKoy Davis and Professor Eldemire Shearer also collaborated on a symposium, 'Financial literacy, retirement, and becoming financially capable in a developing country' last year. They note, “Less than half of all Jamaicans have adequate retirement funds. People with limited financial resources can and do save, but often use strategies that are not advantageous… Jamaica's rapidly growing ageing population has resulted in both a workforce and a retirement financial crisis.”

This was pre-COVID-19. The hardship on our indigent elderly is severe. In central Kingston, 86-year-old Sister Benedict Chung has redoubled her efforts to provide weekly food packages for the over 500 people who line up at her gate at Laws Street Trade & Training Centre. She noted that she has been able to increase distribution thanks to Butch Hendrickson at National Baking, Max Jardim at Rainforest Foods, William Mahfood at Wisynco, and the Digicel Foundation.

We applaud Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett for facilitating the establishment of a pension scheme for tourism workers, many of whom have been laid off due to low visitor arrivals. We also note the promise of new Labour and Social Security Minister Karl Samuda for the revision and implementation of the National Policy for Seniors. A great deal of effort was put into the first revision by the late Minister Shahine Robinson and we look forward to this final step.

The sickening issue of elderly abuse must be addressed with urgency, and we look forward to briefing Minister Samuda on CCRP's submission to the ministry on this matter.

Happy National Seniors Week to our elders: Let us make every effort to keep them safe and well, just as they did for us.

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