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Cross-generational crisis is already with us

Published: 
Wednesday, March 28, 2018

We’ll call her Grace for the sake of confidentiality, although we’re all familiar with her story. She came from Grenada more than 40 years ago. Then she was a young woman escaping domestic complications, including an infant daughter she left with her mother. She birthed two boys for different fathers before marrying a Trini who already had five children with his previous wife (who’d died of breast cancer in her early 30s and herself had two children from a previous marriage).

Grace took her husband’s seven children along with her second son into the marriage home, a wooden shack in the hills above San Juan. Then she made three girls, in quick succession, for her Trini man. When this extensive family moved to a housing development in Tacarigua in the mid 1980s Grace effectively became mother and care giver to 11; her Grenadian daughter would visit in “summer” school vacations.

If you compare her photostudio portrait back in the 1970s—demure, bright-eyed, country-girl attractive, with the wizened shell she’s become as an elderly 66-year-old, you’d swear these were two different women.

Grace’s retired husband has never applied to have her residency status regularised, so she doesn’t get a state pension.

For more than 35 years she has cared for her children and their step siblings and of course in more recent years a rapidly expanding brood of grandchildren. She receives scant gratitude and no pay for all her sacrifice and work. She’s been abused verbally and physically by children and step children alike. Her only recreation— Spiritual Baptist services and trips to hospital, health centres and doctors (if she has a little change). She has “trouble with her nerves,” is in a constant state of anxiety, runs a continuous monologue (to herself as no one listens) and is only sustained by her faith.

For Grace there is no possibility of work/life balance.

Her life is a continuum of unpaid work—which goes largely unrecognised in productivity stats. As for quality of life, forget it. The best Grace can hope for is an occasional community kids’ party or a Baptist feast.

Dickie’s story

Then we have Dickie’s story. A lifelong socialist and alumnus of Ruskin Working Man’s College, Oxford and Sussex University, Dickie returned from the UK in his thirties to become a history teacher, cultural activist and polemicist, and contribute to developing our young nation.

Now in his early 70s and beset with a range of health problems including failing eyesight, Dickie remains fiercely independentliving “batchy,” and outspoken:

“Younger people tend to write off the older generation, neither understanding nor valuing their life experience.”

He’s reached the realisation that “the way our society is organised, there’s been no fundamental change in the quality of life. Yes, there have been some material changes but  these only impact on a small percentage of the population.”

While expressing the alienation and awareness of the abuse suffered by many of the elderly (loneliness, lack of visits from family unless with mercenary intent) Dickie makes some cogent suggestions for reintegrating the marginalised older generation.

“Retirement should only be an option for those who want to, or those who are physically or mentally challenged. If you want to work until 75, what’s wrong with that?”

Recognising that “lots of elderly people treasure their independence” but miss socialising, Dickie suggests a system of visiting care-givers rather than the further isolation of a home for the aged and recreational centres for the elderly. Local government buses could be used to pick up the elderly for excursions, keep-fit sessions or for a whole range of activities at designated centres which address their holistic well-bein —music, song and dance, games (table tennis, chess, draughts, dominoes, cards) reading sessions which encourage expression and interaction. These are viable options society could offer to combat the loneliness, isolation, sickness and alienation which ageing men in particular currently self medicate with rumshop drinking or gambling.

Next month a public forum will be opened to address this seismic shift in ageing demographics and related issues, compounded by current economic conditions in T&T. The UWI Research Development Impact Fund in collaboration with the Institute of Gender and Development Studies and the Social work Unit will host a two-day conference, April 26-27: Connecting the Dots: Work Life Balance Ageing. The conference is the culmination of the three-year project led by Prof Patricia Mohammed and Dr Cheryl-Ann Boodram, Work/Life Balance and ageing in Trinidad: studying the productivity and well-being of working men and women.

Rather than a series of academic papers or presentation of research data, the conference seeks to engage as widely as possible with the problems we all face in attempting to balance work demands with personal, domestic and social responsibilities.

Along with discussions with researchers, agencies in the fields of ageing, HR, special interest groups from the elderly and civil society, two open mike sessions will facilitate debate and possible strategies for planning, policy and initiatives which recognise existing deficiencies.

The conference will not be all talk talk, but will feature artistic presentations, film shorts, animation and a performance from young calypsonian Chucky. Interested parties— professionals in law, gender, social work, NGOs, the private sector and anyone committed to planning for a sustained quality of life for all while managing workforce productivity are invited to attend.

These two stories highlight a cross-generational crisis which is already with us.

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