Imani Tafari-Ama | Bodies, ageing and temporary abilities
The Hon Louise Bennett-Coverley always encouraged us not to take ourselves too seriously. Miss Lou said to laugh at yourself! This is a sure antidote for depression. I got a superchance to take this advice recently when I went to the Jamaica Public Service Company. I was in a bit of a stew because I had to query how the deposit cost for a new account had jumped from $1,500 to $6,000 in one go. This is not the kind of angst that can be solved over the phone. When it came to time to pay, the security guard informed me that I was to join a short line for the cashier. I felt a bit embarrassed to pass all the people waiting in the long line and asked the guard if people would not get upset that I had skipped them. She replied, “No ma’am. This line is for old people and the disabled!”
I was gobsmacked by this evaluation. To my mind, I was using crutches as a temporary measure because I had hurt my foot. As for being an old person, well, I am getting on, but I am not that decrepit just yet. But the sign did say ‘elderly and disabled’, so I smiled ruefully, slipped behind the one man ahead of me, and was out in a jiffy. The experience gave me pause, though. I reflected that there are so many things that able and young people take for granted about their bodily capabilities. For example, the capacity to put one foot in front of the other and walk without difficulty is one such gift. My new skill of walking with crutches to alleviate the inconvenience of hurting my injured foot was never a conscious consideration before. Yet I have become hypersensitive to the challenges faced by those who are differently abled to what is considered normal.
One day, as I was sitting in a car park waiting for my daughter to return from purchasing some items in the pharmacy, I watched in amazement as a man with one leg amputated at the thigh and supported by one crutch, sauntered effortlessly out of the supermarket on his working foot and swung himself into his car, revved up, and drove away. I imagined, though, the effort he and other disabled people must exert to take a shower. As I have been navigating my own crutches, I have come to realise that extra pressure is placed on the side of the body bearing the weight of the side you are unable to use as efficiently as is possible when both sides are functioning.
SIGHT AND HEARING
This experience also made me think about the senses of sight and hearing. As an audio-visual documentary producer, I am obliged to use captions to ensure that those who are hearing-challenged can follow the script with subtitles. This is a strategy of inclusion that we did not consider as critical back in the day. It is now also politically correct to ensure that buildings have ramps so that wheelchair (and crutches) users can enter buildings without encountering the difficulties associated with climbing stairs. When driving, I see white-cane users with magnified vision and intentionally decrease speed and stop to allow pedestrians the right to cross. Have you ever been standing at the zebra crossing and noticed how some motorists zip by, seemingly oblivious to raised hands or the obligation to stop?
Being elderly and or disabled are two developments that should be factored into life skills planning agendas. Advancing age brings on health concerns that were never a thought when one walked blithely in bodies that functioned on automatic pilot. Mind you, illnesses happen across the age spectrum. However, age-specific ailments like compromised eyesight once you cross the 40-line, requiring glasses, signal that bodies are temporary and must be treated with care. This is especially true in Jamaica, land we love, where the high crime rate has introduced unexpected bodily injuries into the lives of victims and caregivers alike. It is not unusual to hear stories about people who become disabled because of gruesome encounters with weapon-wielding antagonists. That is, if they live to tell the tales.
Even more heart rending, though, are the psychosocial injuries suffered by the elderly and disabled, whether these ailments are caused by involuntarily ageing or deliberate injury. How do you salve the pain of someone whose grief stems from the wanton bullet shot by someone without empathy or regard for life? Traversing the corridors of mental ill health is a handicap that is also disregarded by those who are fortunate enough to avoid those pitfalls. The trauma suffered by caregivers is also a hazard highway with insufficient safety barriers.
BURDEN OF SUCCOURING
This burden of succouring falls most heavily on the shoulders of women, who are culturally consigned to caregiving roles as a norm. Caring for children, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly is assumed to be women’s responsibility. The men who take on this care are lauded. In some families, while some look the other way when it comes to taking on these tasks, there is, inevitably, the assumption that the eldest or the one with least children or most money, etc, etc, will do it. This is sometimes a negotiated arrangement, but often, caregivers are designated by default, and there is not always a plan for taking care of those taking care.
In countries with advanced social services, families can depend on the state to offset the costs of ageing and being disadvantaged by disabilities. However, when such support is minimal or non-existent due to conservative governance policies, those without robust insurance coverage or social support suffer the cost and psychosocial consequences of not being able to navigate the challenges of change-of-life circumstances. The hovering spectre of death, the inevitable outcome of the ageing process and disability disfigurements, is the proverbial elephant in this conversation. Instead of coming together to agree on a planned sharing agreement to cover the costs of this inconvenience, it is usual for many families to be scrambling to cover the costs of surgeons and their associates, undertakers, bashment repast organisers and the works. The compromised quality of the caregivers’ lives is a significant casualty of rendering support. Unconditional commitment to cover the grounds of the loved one’s age-specific ill-health or disability – natural or acquired – may be its own catalyst for sickness of the temporarily sturdy ones as time rolls on.
Dr Imani Tafari-Ama is a research fellow at The Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Regional Coordinating Office (IGDS-RCO), at The University of the West Indies. Send feedback to email@example.com.