Sun | Sep 20, 2020

Editorial | Use service corps to help elderly

Published:Monday | September 14, 2020 | 12:08 AM

We do not know much how attention Jamaica’s health officials, including the minister, Christopher Tufton, have paid to the recent observations of Professor Denise Eldemire-Shearer, or to the several concerns and suggestions of this newspaper, going as far back as six months ago.

If they were, they might have been ahead of another epidemic that Professor Eldemire-Shearer, an expert on ageing, has warned, may be lurking on the horizon as an outgrowth of the COVID-19 pandemic: mental illnesses among old people, borne out of insecurity and fear. The Government, in the circumstance, should urgently recalibrate its coronavirus responses to include programmes that pay special attention to this vulnerable demographic.

The health ministry does not give an age break-down in its daily reports on the number of persons who test positive for COVID-19, or among the 3,500 people who have contracted the disease since the first case was confirmed on March 10. However, it is widely known that the virus is more likely to be fatal to the elderly, or persons with underlying health conditions. Indeed, more than half of 40 COVID-19-related deaths reported in Jamaica up to September 9, health officials say, were people over 70.

This age group, though, accounts for only a little more than six per cent of Jamaica’s population. Put another way, persons in that age group have died from COVID-19 at a rate more than eight times their representation in the population. This is the context within which the Government has advised older people to stay at home as much as possible, and issued specific orders to do so to people 70 and older.

ANXIOUS ABOUT COVID-19

It is understandable, therefore, that old people are anxious about the disease – and more so since the Government’s September 4 declaration that Jamaica had entered the community spread phase of the disease. Indeed, in the fortnight up to that announcement, there were 1,675 new cases of COVID-19, a 130 per cent increase on all the cases since the first one, and up to September 3.

“They (the elderly) are afraid, and the death rate among the elderly gives them reason to be afraid,” Professor Eldemire-Shearer, director of the Ageing and Wellness Centre at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, told this newspaper.

The gerontologist highlighted the anxieties and sense of isolation that are likely to be harboured by older people – over 250,000 Jamaicans, or around nine per cent of the population, if you include people in the 65-plus age group – who may be stuck in their homes and warned to be careful about who they entertain. There is also the potential for physical degeneration when older people are unable to exercise.

We agree with Professor Eldemire-Shearer’s call for families to become more involved in protecting the emotional and physical well-being of old relatives caught in this crisis. But we are also well aware of the precarious existence – social and economic – of large swathes of Jamaica’s population, which will likely limit the kind of engagement she proposes. Indeed, many younger people, who, even before COVID-19, lived in the economic margins, have had their own anxieties exacerbated as their economic struggles intensified.

HELP THE ELDERLY

It is against this background that this newspaper called in March for government interventions to help the elderly. We proposed the use of some of the several thousand young people trained by the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), under the Jamaica National Service Corps (JNSC), to provide support to old people, such as helping with their shopping, collecting medicine, paying utility bills and giving companionship.

The volunteers, of course, would be required to observe all the COVID-19 protocols. The fact that they were vetted by the JDF, which would imbue the system with a greater level of trust, and that their own health status could be monitored by the authorities, would limit the possibility of compromise of the health of the people they served being compromised.

“...Psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers should be harnessed to design community interventions, delivered, too, if required, by JNSC graduates, to help community members remain psychologically healthy in difficult circumstances,” we said at the time.

The proposal remains relevant. It beats us that the health authorities do not seem to think so.