Island that looks after its elderly better than the West

Sandra Corbin - Bridgetown, Barbados

Sooner or later most of us have to face the dilemma of being an elderly person or caring for one. Various cultures deal with an ageing gran or grandpa in various ways.

However, today's predominantly westernised fast-paced youth-orientated lifestyle poses a big challenge for the Caribbean and the way things have always been done, with the traditional practice of the extended family living together.

This might be startling in the West. It is quite common in a small island developing state to find adult males and females over the age of 25 still living at home with parents, siblings and grandchildren. For the most part it makes economic sense in a place that never had much of a boom trickle down the social scale.

But what happens when the parents get old, extra care and attention are now needed for those difficult years' altheimers, arthritis, blood pressure, glaucoma, cholesterol, incontinence, the list goes on ….

Last week Samuel, a 52-year-old, divorcee, no children who works in the local brewery, came home to find that his mother of 92 had gone again! Mrs Blackman, a once tall and fiery cane worker, wanders around. She gets lost often. Thank goodness for a community that is relatively safe. That day she was brought home in a car by a kind stranger.

The stranger, a lovely lady, said that she found her standing at the side of the road on the outskirts of town  "looking confused". She offered Mrs Blackman assistance and Mrs Blackman just eased herself quite comfortably in the back seat of her car.

When asked where she lived, old Blackman drove the stranger around for 30 mins confused until she stumbled across her home.

Samuel was extremely grateful.

I asked him if he would ever consider putting his mother in a home. He said,  "No, she says that she doesn't want to go in one and I don't want her to be unhappy."

There have been incidents where she has lit the gas cooker and left the fire on. On this occasion Samuel got home just in time. Needless to say that the matches are now locked away out of her reach.

I visited the house many times. Mrs Blackman would ask me the same questions again and again as if I were a new face in town. She even calls a dog an elephant if we are talking.

The financial and emotional toil on Samuel is great as well as his dilemma. What would happen if she got worse? Could he afford to leave his job to provide full-time care? Mrs Blackman made it perfectly clear that she does not want a stranger home-help from the migrant community living in HER home.

A form of relief seemed to emerge on the horizon. The government of Barbados announced that there would be an increase in day care centres being set up to assist those people that had to work as well as look after elderly relatives. There would also be a new drive for assisted living housing complexes.

So there you have it, like it or not, due to the changing world and workforce pattern, the traditional family structure in the Caribbean will ultimately go through change. Since, once Barbados implements an initiative it is just a matter of time before the other prosperous countries in the region will follow.

In the past some unscrupulous family members that hung around the family home in our society would decide to abandon their elderly relatives to state-run institutions until they died, while laying in wait to suddenly run back to claim whatever possessions the elderly person had left behind.

Well, there is news for them. Plans are also a foot, from the health department, to ensure that the state is compensated for being forced to care for that elderly relative.

It's obvious that people deteriorate faster when they are home doing nothing or just stuck in a state-run institution. When people die, with all their knowledge built up over the years, society does not get the benefit. Until those facilities mentioned earlier are built, elderly individuals are overlooked or exempted, due to their date of birth, from many national activities.

For the moment, many of us will have to be content to admire in wonderment veteran feats at the the annual Senior Games that usually take place at the National Stadium. There the participants seem to have found the secret of eternal youth.

A 2000 survey suggested that the over 60s represented 15.58 per cent of the total population of Barbados. More recently Barbados was in the first 50 per cent of the world's ageing populations.