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Growing Old in Guyana

(by Wesley Gibbings)

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), more than 22% of the population of Guyana will be over the age of 60 by the year 2050 – three times the current, moderate statistic of 7%.

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The expected numbers are generating concern at a time when development planning is focused heavily, and with often questionable results, on expanding human resource capacities in new and traditional productive sectors.

A much needed revision of the existing state pension of G$12,500 per month for persons over the age of 65 will, for example, need to be considered alongside an anticipated bunching of pension payments at a time in the future when employment gains will need to be greatly accelerated and increased longevity is expected to occur.

Annual old-age pension payments are already close to G$4 billion and benefiting over 40,000 Guyanese. The unfolding scenario will need to cater for much higher numbers receiving benefits over longer periods of time.

The collective cost of private sector pensions is not known but actuarial scientists worldwide are doing the challenging math. Successive studies among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries all urge the design of pension reform processes to account for both higher numbers and higher levels of payment per beneficiary.

Minister of Human Services and Social Security, Jennifer Webster, believes the task in Guyana can only be met “when we place more emphasis on partnerships.”

“It is everyone’s responsibility,” the minister said in an interview with Insight.

The elderly are known victims of criminality, discrimination, physical and emotional abuse, poverty and are subject to sub-standard institutional care at both public and private establishments. The scourge of chronic non-communicable diseases such as cancer, hypertension and diabetes has also taken its toll and the absence of a state mass transit system leaves the elderly at the mercy of often insensitive private operators.

To some extent, the elderly also remain a relatively voiceless segment of the national population. The Government Pensioners’ Association of Guyana and the state-supported Commission for the Elderly are both critically under-resourced.

The need for multi-sectoral actions to address the numerous challenges is supported by Commission Chairman, retired Justice Donald Trotman, who believes a 1998 report on the state of the elderly “fundamentally … contains everything that needs to be done in a basic, fundamental way.”

“Of course budgetary issues can be matters of concern,” he said, “but improving the condition and the lives of the elderly is so important that money simply has to be found by the government and, perhaps, with the collaboration of the private sector.”

Trotman said, in an interview with Insight, that the pension rate of G$12,500 a month “cannot feed a chicken these days” and needed to be changed. He said he understood the financial constraints of the state but argued that an upward revision to G$20,000 per month “would be just about liveable.”

The national agenda to address issues of the aged is very much guided by a declaration adopted in Brasilia in 1997 at the Second Regional Intergovernmental Conference on Ageing in Latin America and the Caribbean headlined: “Towards a Society for all Ages and Rights-Based Social Protection.”

A 2012 report on the country’s progress with the objectives of the Brasilia Declaration states: “The results of the work of ‘all of society’ with respect to implementation of the priority recommendations of the Brasilia Declaration has been ad hoc and less than comprehensive, yet there has been modest but significant achievements in favour of Guyana’s ageing population.”

The report identifies what it describes as an “inventory of actions” reviewed under five thematic areas including legislative, administrative, programmatic, institutional and environmental interventions.

Among the “key priorities” defined by stakeholders were: enactment of legislation to specifically reflect the rights of the elderly; development of minimum standards for long-stay institutional care of the ageing and certification programmes for caregivers (both professionals and family members) in the best care of the elderly.

The priorities also included health awareness and early screening programmes that address needs of the ageing beyond diabetes and hypertension and includes prevention and enhanced care for degenerative disease, along with particular attention the sexual and reproductive health of older persons; creation of social protection programmes based on culture for elderly living alone and/or who are shut-ins: in tandem with a national inter-sectoral plan which should be streamlined within all related line ministries.

State action since 2007 has included incremental increases in pension benefits, rehabilitation of the Palms Geriatric Facility and the subsidising of water and electricity rates.

Trotman, who authored the seminal 1998 report, believes his Commission can become a more effective facilitator of some important requirements of the process of meeting the needs of the elderly but only if greater financial and administrative support is provided.

“I think things would be much better … but if that does not happen then I’m afraid that the elderly will continue to suffer for a long time in this country,” he said. “But,” he quickly added, “we remain hopeful.”

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