Glenn Tucker | Ageing in the age of ageism
Some years ago, I went to a pharmacy. An elderly woman was before me, so I stood a few feet behind her for privacy. A cheerful pharmacist came back to her and quoted a price. The woman responded and the pharmacist left and returned, quoting a lower figure.
Again, the woman said something to her and the cheerful smile disappeared. In a soft, sad tone, she said, "No, you can't take one. They have to be taken together." The woman hesitated for about 20 seconds, retrieved her prescription, and turned to leave.
As she turned, I recognised her. She was a former stalwart of the teaching profession. And she could not afford to fill her prescription. This remained with me.
My snooping, over the next few years, has left me very, very concerned. It seems that many of the retired government workers in Jamaica are either flat broke or having a difficult time finding the basics for survival. Were they just careless?
Born in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, these persons would have entered the world of work when a brand-new car could be purchased for £$1,300 and a litre of gas would cost 7 cents. The Jamaican currency was stronger than the US dollar.
Two years after high school, the prudent worker could start thinking of owning a house. One in the Harbour View scheme was going for £1,200. They could be forgiven for thinking retirement would be an easy time and that their government would, should, and could take care
of any problem.
But what can the Government do? There is also a major mental-health monster that is about to surface. Denarto Dennis, an economics lecturer at the University of the West Indies, writing for The Sunday Gleaner of October 19, 2014, had this to say of Jamaica's modern economic performance:
"... Relatively good economic performance continued up to the early 1970s ... . Growth, however, took a snag for most of the years after 1973, a year in which the world economy experienced a major oil price shock that hit the Jamaican economy very hard ... . The strong socialist agenda of the Government brought notable but unsustainable social advances, forcing Jamaica into a tough borrowing relationship with the IMF ... ."
Free-market capitalism in a high-interest rate environment contributed to the mid-1990s financial meltdown, throwing the country's fiscal apparatus into a state of imbalance.
"... It is clear that its cumulative stagnation has caused many to remain in poverty and constrained the rate of development of human and general productive capacities ... . Growth in Jamaica has remained far too stagnant to make any cuts in the incidence of poverty. ... The total value of the economy, in real terms, is hardly better off than it was in 1962," Dennis concluded.
But is it only former government workers that are at risk? Pension coverage in Jamaica is the lowest (21.4 per cent) in the Caribbean. Barbados is 68.2 per cent and Grenada, 62.1 per cent. Some 78 per cent of the working-age population in Jamaica have no pension coverage. Only 40 per cent of the employed labour force has pension coverage. Only five per cent of self-employed persons and 62 per cent of salaried employees contribute to NIS.
Dr Tamoya Christie, IDB consultant, revealed that the two largest industries (agriculture and wholesale and retail) have the lowest levels of NIS compliance. That pension coverage under the NIS is significantly higher among females and NIS coverage rates are closely correlated to firm size, where only three per cent of firms that employ one person and 94 per cent of firms with more than 50 employees are compliant.
Dr Christie is recommending policy initiatives. But how helpful will this be when one remembers the worrying assessment of our economic condition mentioned earlier. The truth is that with the best of intentions, the Government is not equipped to deal with what I regard as the greatest challenge facing the country in the next decade - a problem that would have surfaced earlier had it not been for improvements in our health system in recent times.
BURDENED BY BILLS
It is not possible to judge one's preparedness or just by how comfortable one is in retirement. No one goes into retirement planning to file bankruptcy or depending on family. Many end up in serious need for a variety of reasons. Could any of us, leaving school, imagine an exchange rate of 136:1? . The fastest way to go broke is from medical bills. I suffered from a major, career-ending illness fairly early in my professional life, and although I had excellent health insurance, I can say with assurance, that had it not been for strong, committed support in my home, I would now be keeping company with those folks on the street. A 1915 Harvard University study showed that medical expenses account for approximately 62 per cent of personal bankruptcies in the US. Worse, studies indicate that seniors are the fastest-growing demographic in bankruptcy filings, and 72 per cent of those who filed due to medical expenses had some type of health insurance.
I know the Government is aware. My only word to Government is this: The population is ageing. But people are living longer. So why aren't they working longer? Revise this present retirement age. Some of the best teachers are languishing at home getting depressed - and broke! - while there is a teacher shortage. But those who can should start looking elsewhere.
Why is no financial institution offering senior citizens mortgages secured over a residential property that enables the borrower to access the unencumbered value of the property and defer payments until they leave? What about pooling resources and living together like the Golden Girls did? Is there a Jamaica Association for Retired Persons to secure discounts and plan social events?
Many can seek employment on their own, online. UpWork, Fiverr, and FlexJobs are reputable sites.
In the meantime, can I exhort senior citizens to stop delaying plans to eat better, establish an exercise routine, and drop bad habits?
I am starting next week.