The Government's plan to introduce licensing, monitoring and effective policing of homes and facilities providing care for the elderly is a welcome initiative, if long overdue in this country. According to statistics provided by Dr Jennifer Rouse, the director of the Division of Ageing in the Ministry of Social Development, there are at least 84 private homes and full care facilities providing care for the elderly. But the government's initiative reaches robustly into the issue of care for the aged, providing concrete and daunting penalties for provable cases of elder abuse.
The broad scope of this legislation is provided for under the Older Persons Act, a strategic legislative document on the aged drafted in 2006 and after review, now awaits the attention of President George Maxwell Richards for proclamation. The elements of the Act which are scheduled to be empowered by August 2012 are just a part of the rights that are enshrined in this critical piece of legislation which will affect an estimated 156,000 senior citizens over the age of retirement, a full 12 per cent of the nation's population. Over the next 50 years, Minister of Community Development Nizam Baksh estimates, the population of the aged is likely to double, a result of improved longevity and the population profile of the population.
The Community Development Ministry is itself in the business of caring for the elderly and has trained 600 caregivers under the Geriatric Adolescent Partnership Programme to manage the needs of senior citizens left unattended or supervised. Faced with growing demand for this service, Minister Baksh plans to increase that number to 1,000 as fast as he can get Cabinet approval. The catalogue of elder abuses according to Dr Rouse, is intimidating. There are the obvious atrocities of poor care in facilities meant to look after the aged and infirm, which include shocking reports of residents, whose relatives are paying for a service, being fed half-cooked food infested with weevils and being hosed down in the yard.
And then there are the surprising stories of upscale members of society being exiled to rooms in their own homes or being conned out of their properties by their own families. Even more startling than these familiar, but still disturbing stories of abuse is an even more casual phenomenon of neglect; the cavalier dumping of the elderly at public hospitals so that their relatives can party and play mas. According to Dr Rouse, weeks after Carnival, the elderly relatives remain abandoned at the hospital and doctors must issue a media bulletin to ask people to come and collect their relatives. Given this startling profile of experiences, the Division of Ageing is absolutely correct to push for enforcement of the legislation on elderly care first.
The Act enables a fine of $25,000 and imprisonment for two years for any licensee, manager or employee of a home for older persons who wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects or exposes the elderly and fails to provide food, care or lodging. Each continuation of the offence attracts an additional fine of $25,000 per day. The owners of homes must also own liability insurance in the sum of $100,000. Infractions or failure to meet the now legal requirements for geriatric care will attract a warning and an opportunity to correct any failings in facility or care. Facilities that fail to address the concerns of the Facility Review Team in 90 days will face closure.
The Division of Ageing has some interesting ideas about engaging the elderly as communities and as participants in the wider society, but quite correctly, the quality of their care must come first. "The legislation will give us the backbone and teeth for the institutional facilities, residential homes and the country's eight senior centres," Dr Rouse noted. Facility owners will have a transition period of a year, and they will be assessed according to a code of conduct and ethics by 15 field inspectors charged with continuing monitoring of geriatric care homes. The strategy is sound, the legislation is pending and the issues are clear. All that's needed now is the action that the nation's elders have been awaiting for far too long.