(by Andrew Kendall)
Times have changed, and Guyanese society is now slowly becoming comfortable with the idea of sending elders away to be cared for by strangers. The pace of change is not as slow as in some Asian countries (in Cambodia, for example, the first such home was opened only in June 2013), but there are major hurdles still to be crossed.
The idea of retirement homes in Guyana still generates some degree of scepticism in the mind of the average Guyanese. The general perception is that retirement homes (often referred to as “old folks’ homes”) are a place for the elderly only used in times of desperation.
But such attitudes are slowly disappearing. When one takes a walk through the halls of Archer’s Home, a retirement home on Durban Street, Georgetown, and interacts with residents, the invalidity of negative attitudes is emphasised.
Yvonne is a congenial 76 year old resident of Archer’s Home. She came to the home six months ago after living an apartment with her son and his wife. Yvonne explains that after a few disagreements with her son she opted to leave and seek residence elsewhere. A retirement home seemed like a satisfactory option.
George, 73, is another resident who has been at the home for 10 years. He moved down from Plaisance, East Coast Demerara after the only relative of his in Guyana, who he was living with, died.
George, a farmer in his youth, maintains his trade, planting pigeon peas and other small vegetables at Archer’s. He refers to himself as the handyman admitting that he feels fulfilled being allowed to continue his trade for all these years.
Mr Crawford is another sprightly 83 years old. Like Yvonne, he decided to come to the home of his own volition to the consternation of some of his relatives. He is working on a book on nutrition and frequents the internet cafes on Durban Street to do research. When questioned about his freedom to move about at the home he chuckles.
Sometimes Mr Crawford even sleeps out, provided that he calls in to inform the staff staying at friends and relatives living out of town.
For Mr Crawford and Robert, another resident who visits his children as often as he can in Plaisance, Archer’s home is almost an apartment complex where he stays but to which he is not confined.
The mood at Archer’s Home dispels the common notion of the “old folks’ home” as dreary places where only the most reluctant venture when the younger members of society have no place for them.
The state of care for the elderly as a business has not grown in leaps and bounds as it has in western nations (in the Netherlands a retirement community with on-site bars, restaurants, village-squares and beauty parlours houses up to 6000).
Retirement homes in Guyana are still small scale ventures. The term “business” seems inaccurate to describe some of them which are run from colonial type residences turned retirement homes.
For $25,000 per month ($18,000 if sharing a room with someone) residents at Archer’s Home have a room to themselves, access to electricity, water and telephone and the communal television in the living room. Meals and snacks are provided daily along with occasional entertainment and the regular church session on weekends.
Despite its services to the elderly, the management of the Home has been unable to acquire subventions from utility companies, instead surviving on fees from the residents, the occasional donations and a $50,000 per year subvention from the government which only marginally helps with the burgeoning cost of maintaining a house of elderly persons. By caring for a group of senior citizens in one location institutions like Archer’s Home are a more cost-effective way of caring for the elderly.
Yvonne laughs, acknowledging it’s good being in the company of her peers. She is able to maintain a social life, something which might have been lacking had she remained in the care of her children away from Archer’s. And, yet, stimulating positive images of retirement homes remains an uphill climb.
Sociologists assert that the stigma attached to retirement and nursing home persists in fostering an unhealthy fear of aging not just in the young but in those who are already senior citizens.
Institutions like Archer’s Home exist as proof that senior-citizen care has gone past being taboo. However, when the cost of maintaining such institutions is still an issue, the existence of fewer than 25 such homes in Georgetown with some offering accommodation for as few as 20 residents, the changing attitudes toward retirement homes might come to naught if there are no means of ensuring they are effectively run and cost-effective.