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Today, October 1, is the International Day of Older Persons. The theme this year is Pandemics: Do They Change How We Address Age and Ageing? This is an appropriate time for us to reflect on this issue.

The Division of Ageing in the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services reminds us that T&T is “a part of that select group of countries within the developing world having an ‘ageing population,’ which is representative of the demographic trend within the region.

At present, the elderly population of T&T stands at 12 per cent or 156,000 persons over the age of 60 years (Central Statistical Office, 2010). According to the UN World Population Prospects (2008), the percentage of persons in T&T aged 60 years and over is projected to be 17.7 per cent in 2025 and expected to grow to 30.1 per cent in 2050.”

I note that the ministry “recognises that the elderly is among its targeted vulnerable populations and is ready to provide any psychosocial support, counselling and requisite referrals and advice to affected persons and families. For further information, persons may call the ministry’s hotline at 800 – 1MSD or the Older Person’s Hotline: 800 – OPIC – 1405.”

UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres says: “The COVID-19 pandemic is causing untold fear and suffering for older people across the world. Beyond its immediate health impact, the pandemic is putting older people at greater risk of poverty, discrimination and isolation. It is likely to have a particularly devastating impact on older people in developing countries…The fatality rate for older people is higher overall, and for those over 80, it is five times the global average.”

On September 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that among adults, the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 eg requiring hospitalisation, intensive care, or a ventilator, “increases with age, with older adults at highest risk….eight out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths reported in the United States have been among adults aged 65 years and older.” Of course, other factors such as underlying medical conditions can increase the risk for older persons.

Here in T&T it is imperative that we change how we address age and ageing in the face of the pandemic. Let’s be clear though, any “change” must be in the best interests of older people. We must respect their rights and dignity. As the UN Secretary General says: “Older people have the same rights to life and health as everyone else”.

You may have read about the thousands of persons in care homes in England and Wales who have died from the virus. We have a number of care homes in T&T. In April, the Minister of Health, Terrence Deyalsingh, said there are about 3,000 to 6,000 elderly persons across about 169 registered homes but pointed out that there are also unregistered homes. The report stated that these homes are under the control of the County Medical Officer of Health.

Formal infection prevention controls guidelines have been produced for these homes. However, we must go beyond sharing best practice, and must monitor the situation in such homes.

We all have a responsibility to enhance the quality of life of older persons in our communities. During this pandemic, please take extra precaution if you have older persons living with you, or if there are older persons in homes/places that you do visit. Reach out, particularly to those older persons who may be living on their own. The World Health Organisation says that: “Older people are being challenged by requirements to spend more time at home, lack of physical contact with other family members, friends and colleagues, temporary cessation of employment and other activities; and anxiety and fear of illness and death—their own and others. It is therefore important that we create opportunities to foster healthy ageing during the pandemic.”

Let’s note the advice given during the regular briefings on the pandemic and ensure that we do not flout the COVID protocols. And let’s reject some of the stereotypes that exist about older persons. Many of them, including me, continue to make a valuable contribution to society. So, while we must address their needs during this challenging time, let’s reject what Pope Francis calls the “throwaway culture” and tap into their talent/gifts. As Pope Benedict XVI’s said: “The quality of a society, I mean of a civilisation, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life.”