Older Persons in Jamaica: COVID-19, Fierce Determination, and a Little Disco Dancing

Today, October 1, 2020, is the International Day of Older Persons. The theme (like most other themes for discussions and commemorations, these days) includes reference to the ever-present virus: Pandemics: Do They Change How We Address Age and Ageing?

According to the United Nations: “Globally, there were 703 million persons aged 65 or over in 2019. Over the next three decades, the number of older persons worldwide is projected to more than double, reaching more than 1.5 billion persons in 2050…By 2020, the number of people aged 60 years and older will outnumber children younger than 5 years.” In the context of COVID-19, the pandemic “may significantly lower older persons’ incomes and living standards. Already, less than 20% of older persons of retirement age are receiving a pension.”

People over 60 have been hardest hit by COVID-19 in the Americas. (Photo: United Nations)

The UN Secretary General’s message for the day hits the nail on the head. It is not just about health, important as that is nowadays. How we treat with the older generations, how we live with them, how we relate to each other – especially in these trying times – these are critical factors:

The world marks the 30th anniversary of the International Day of Older Persons as we reckon with the disproportionate and severe impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought on older persons around the world – not only on their health, but on their rights and well-being. – UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Mr. Guterres elaborates further on this message here. Much of the discussion in Jamaica this week (which is Senior Citizen’s Week) echoes his message. The Jamaican approach was a combination of serious information, with a dash of humor – and hope. It worked well, for me.

Mandeville Parish Church. (My photo)

Last night, the Minister of Health and Wellness was in the mid-island town of Mandeville, where the demographics may be slightly older than elsewhere, because a number of “returning residents” and retirees live there, up in the hills where it is a little cooler. He was joined for a press briefing by the indomitable Professor Denise Eldemire Shearer, a medical doctor who heads the Mona Wellness and Ageing Centre at the University of the West Indies; and two doctors from the Southern Regional Health Authority (which consists of three parishes: Manchester, St. Elizabeth and Clarendon – population around 600,000). It appears that half of all the COVID-19 beds in this region are occupied.

Professor Denise Eldemire-Shearer.

I call Professor Eldemire “indomitable,” because she always “tells it like it is.” She is not deflected by irrelevancies; she stays focused on the here and now. The focus was on COVID-19 but spilled over into other health-related areas affecting older persons. (Please, not “old people.”)

The past seven months of sitting or lying down has “taken its toll” said Professor Eldemire. Many people don’t have yards to walk around and don’t eat as well. Restricted mobility is an issue – and this will become a long-term one, she observed. Some who used to walk can no longer do so – muscle loss in older people happens quite quickly. She also reported the results of two recent surveys of older Jamaicans, as follows:

Only 40 percent of seniors surveyed lived with a spouse; 30 percent lived alone; and 30 percent were living with someone else. 20 percent had missed their health appointments (check-ups, that is, not medication). 71 percent are extremely concerned about COVID-19 and 98 percent said they are following protocols (properly? One doesn’t know).

Critically, some 20 percent of those surveyed were finding their situation increasingly difficult and would find the limitations more challenging if they were prolonged; these were probably the 20 percent who were still working. 34 percent were feeling isolated and “left out.”

At a meeting of CCRP’s Central Jamaica Chapter in Mandeville. (My photo)

We need to be very specific, said Professor Eldemire (who said she is only seeing 25 percent of her regular patients). Stay at home, but keep your doctor’s appointment; take exercise; and stay connected (50 percent said this would be church). A visit from a family member, observing all protocols, would cheer older people up. Community support is also critical.

A member of the elder community in St. Elizabeth, Mrs. Bromfield, spoke of her experience on the program: “My body felt like a hurricane passed through the town and everything blew down – now we are having to rebuild.” She and her husband (both diabetics, with the so-called “comorbidities”) had COVID-19 and are now recovering. “Don’t go out if you don’t have to!” warned Mrs. Bromfield. To younger Jamaicans, she advised: “Dead man can’t party – keep away from crowds, be wise and be smart.” She mentioned that the nursing team at Black River Hospital (where they spent six weeks) was “relentless” in its efforts. Mrs. Bromfield was herself impressive.

Today, both ministries collaborated for a Webinar, which had more of the feel of an informal get-together, and less of a lecture. It was colorful (bright backdrops) and cheerful, but at the same time informative and directed at older Jamaicans themselves. Rosie Murray was the MC and seemed to be enjoying her role.

A champion runner from St. Ann. Exercise keeps him “vibrant and brilliant,” he says. (screen shot from the webinar)

The webinar kicked off (literally) with an exercise session with a young man from the Ministry’s Jamaica Moves program – and the first of a three-part video series, introduced by Dr. Le’Anne Steele, which demonstrated a range of excellent exercises (not all exercises are suitable for everyone). There were champion veteran runners (one named “Princess Margaret,” aged 65, declared “I am a second Shelly-Ann!” and another gentleman in Lime Hall, St. Ann said running “keeps me vibrant and brilliant.”)

Medals galore! Another veteran runner.

There was lots of good advice on diet – more water, less sugar, less salt and a balanced diet – and magnesium, Vitamins A, C, B12 and D were recommended as important supplements for older people. Dr. Judith Leiba’s talk on mental health and resilience was insightful. Three key COVID coping mechanisms that she itemized were: 1) prayer (in my case, meditation); exercise; and “fierce determination.” And finally, the Q and A session towards the end was incredibly useful.

There were lots of good exercises for seniors in the video. A whole program, really.

So…I am an older person myself. I can relate to Dr. Leiba’s three coping strategies, by the way, in my own COVID life. I would add a few other things – like burying myself in my Kindle, watching intense Scandinavian detective series on Netflix, watching football with my husband, listening to all kinds of music (depending on COVID-mood), and messing around with the dogs, who accompany me on my exercise. Oh, and writing!

Well, I wandered away from the webinar for a few minutes to make a cup of coffee. It was quite a long session (watch in full here). On my return, I saw one of the presenters, who had just been talking about coping with COVID, dancing away to the strains of the Bee Gees… Yes, dancing is good for mind and body too – at any age…

Disco moves: and why not. A screen shot from today’s webinar – not at all stuffy or dull.

I am also a member of and volunteer for the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP) in Jamaica. Here are some comments from CCRP Chairperson Jean Lowrie-Chin in her weekly column in the Jamaica Observer on the way forward for the Government on senior citizen policies. CCRP, a non-profit organization, lobbies on serious matters such as elder abuse. The National Policy needs to be completed:

We also note the promise of new Labour and Social Security Minister Karl Samuda for the revision and implementation of the National Policy for Seniors. A great deal of effort was put into the first revision by the late Minister Shahine Robinson and we look forward to this final step.

The sickening issue of elderly abuse must be addressed with urgency, and we look forward to briefing Minister Samuda on CCRP’s submission to the ministry on this matter.

5 thoughts on “Older Persons in Jamaica: COVID-19, Fierce Determination, and a Little Disco Dancing

  1. Another excellent article, Emma. Yes, I like ‘older people’ not ‘old people.’ Older people do lose muscle mass quite quickly. Dancing is good!


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