Valuing Tradition, Valuing the Elderly

Bringing discussions of abuse – be it sexual, physical, verbal or emotional – into public forums is often a tricky issue, one that in many cases is avoided for the sake of maintaining a sense of comfort. As challenging as it can be to discuss ‘abuse' as a general issue, this challenge typically becomes more potent when we seek to discuss the abuse of ‘vulnerable' groups such as young children and, to an even greater extent, the elderly.

In a number of communities across the Caribbean, we have come to place an extremely high value on youth, moving away from traditions that elevated our elders to a place of respect, and in essence obscuring their faces, silencing their voices and by extension, increasing their vulnerability. Given the dimension of gender, which often places women at a disadvantage in the allocation of, and access to power, the vulnerability of aged communities becomes an even more pressing issue for numbers of elderly women. Even within most organizations and education programs whose work is dedicated to social advancement, issues related to the elderly often go unaddressed.

In the 2001 text, Health Issues in the Caribbean, mention is made of the growing life expectancy across the English-speaking Caribbean, with a current life expectancy rate of approximately 75 years. This means that, thanks to social advances such as increased access to health care, larger numbers of our population are living longer. What then are we doing to protect the lives and interests of this section of our societies?

The vulnerability of elderly women recently came sharply into focus in Jamaica with charges being made by female residents of an ‘old age home' in a financially depressed community that they are often verbally, and in one case sexually assaulted by members of the surrounding community. One of the most shocking elements of the newspaper article was not, however, the allegations of abuse, but rather the dismissive manner in which authorities responded to the allegations. The elderly women were charged with unnecessarily seeking to stir up trouble, with a key authority stating that the charges were untrue because she would have known about these violations if they were indeed taking place.

Such a response does not take into account one of the key characteristics of abuse: it usually goes unseen, and by extension, unreported. The hidden nature of abuse is exacerbated in cases where factors such as age, poverty, and inadequate social support systems are at play. Many elderly persons virtually live in obscurity, put aside by their families and communities. The invisibility of this group puts them at particular risk.

While a number of goodwill organizations typically intervene in providing assistance and company for the elderly, we as a society are yet to fully integrate the issue of the abuse of the elderly into discussions of sexual and reproductive health. Our inability to view the elderly as sexual beings therefore has the spill-over effect of blinding us to many cases in which their sexuality is being violated.

Any truly successful society is one in which all members are valued, irregardless of their age, gender or social status. Issues such as the sexual health of the elderly must necessarily be integrated into discussions of HIV/AIDS as well as broader sexual health discussions if we are to truly meet the goals of development.

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  • invalid-0

    As a woman in her mid-sixties, who still thinks of herself as a ‘young’ woman, I am apalled by the treatment of some elderly persons, in particular, women. Young persons are dying daily so that these days to reach the age of 50 is considered a rare privilege. Young people must learn to honour and enjoy their elders. So much can be learnt from them. The respect must start in the home.

  • invalid-0

    I have never been able to visit elderly homes in Jamaica without either wanting to vomit or to cry; I figure out how to control the vomitting but not the crying. Since I was a child, I used to accompany my grandmother, whether as part of one of her church and social groups, or on her own, to visit people who she felt, rightly, had been deserted and left for dead in these homes. No amount of food, singing, or praying could make the signs of emotional neglect and depression go away. And every time we left, I would get the stern lecture that she did not want to be a burden to her children and grandchildren when she got older; nonetheless, she insisted that she would rather be left alone in her own house to die, than to be brought to this pre-funeral parlour setting.

    There was no “Golden Age” for women then, and there certainly isn’t now. Nothing has changed for elderly women over these three decades when it comes to institutional care. In fact, I would agree that it has gotten worse, as Jamaican people are even more disinvested in social welfare issues than they ever were. The abuse is still the same, much of it stemming from the notion that since the families of the elderly have obviously abandoned them, then we as Jamaicans, and especially women, believe that we have the right to remind elderly persons that they are alone, and to use this as a beating stick. And who will say otherwise? This kind of treatment is absolutely sickening and ought to be criminal; but it is consistent with the normalized routine of verbal abuse and violence in the society. You cuss who you can, when you can, and god help them if they are dependent on you.

    I had the same feelings of revulsion and anger last week when I went to visit someone in a home in Kingston. It was one of the better ones, but the same feelings of neglect and despair were there, barely covered under the institutional yellow and blue paint. And when I listen to the so-called advocates for/experts on elderly persons actually argue that the condition of the homes in Jamaica are acceptable, and treating the elderly as troublesome children who need to be disciplined, I want to scream.

    But it need not be like this for ever, or even now. A dear friend of mine who passed away this week, took it up on herself several years ago to organize and advocate for LGBT elderly persons in NY. A simple model really: if noone will do it for us, we will do it for ourselves. At the end of the day, that’s the only way that change will happen – when Jamaican women, no matter what their ages are, take it up on themselves to organize and to advocate for themselves, as well as those who have noone to speak the clear, unvarnished and unpolluted truth for them.