by Vidyaratha Kissoon
“I want to go home, I don’t want to go to the health centre” the woman told us. The rain was falling. The woman was talking to two women and me. We had seen her half sitting, half lying on the steps of the post office.
It seemed no one had noticed her sitting there. The woman had a leatherette traveling bag, with an airline label, her hand bag and a plastic bag. She had put the traveling bag as a pillow and tried to rest on it.
We went over and sat on the steps next to her. She wore a flowered blouse tucked neatly into a skirt. It was not easy to determine her age. Her hair was short, black with a few specks of grey.
She tried to sit up a bit when she saw us.
She said “I am not feeling well”.
We were not sure if she wanted us there.
One of the women asked her if she wanted some water. She said yes. The woman got some water and something to eat. Later on, the staff of the post office made some tea.
“How much do I have for you?” she asked us. We wondered if she had collected pension and got bad feelings.
She told us her name. She lived in Berbice. She was not sure how she ended up at the post office.
“I don’t have anybody in Georgetown”
She sat, took some time, drinking the tea.
I asked her if I should call the ambulance.
She said No No No, she did not want the ambulance and she wanted to go home.
The voice was clear, stern. We asked her if we could take her to the health centre.
She said No, she was okay.
I remembered other battles, for many months, with another elderly woman who refused to seek medical treatment when she was ill, until it was almost too late.
The woman was able to get up from the steps and move to a bench.
The post office had the benches and a shed for the pensioners who have to come to the post office monthly. A motorist killed 73 year old Jocelyn Joseph as she started out at 430am to get to the Bourda Post Office to collect her pension. The elderly are visible, monthly on pension day. The National Commission of the Elderly provides breakfast at two post offices. It isn’t clear why the National Commission of the Elderly is not working with the bright people who want to manage oil revenues and the Exxon Contract to find ways to improve the payment of the pension. There was talk of an Electronic Payment system.
The woman’s back straightened as fragments of memory were coming back. There were long moments of silence.
I remember another elderly women falling down after dehydration. She had attended a funeral and because of uncertainty about toilet facilities, she did not drink any liquids before going out. We wondered if this woman had become dehydrated in preparation for the long journey. Another elderly woman had become temporarily confused after a urinary tract infection – a condition which is common.
We wondered if some temporary confusion had caused the woman to give wrong directions to the taxi driver.
She had come to town for a funeral of a young relative.
We kept asking her to go to the nearby health centre to do a check to see if everything was okay.
She replied No, that she would feel better once she was in a car to go home.
We sat, talked about different things. She gave us more information. She is a survivor of breast cancer, one breast had been removed. She is 79 years old.
She smiled a little bit when we looked surprised. We thought she was about 60 to 65 years old.
She told us where she lived in Berbice. She had a son. She gave us the phone number of a neighbour.
“She is a good neighbour”
The demographics have changed in Guyana. There are many places where people do not know their neighbours and where contact is limited.
In the last 10 years or so, there are stories emerging of elderly people dying in their homes, bodies found after a “smell”.
In December, 2010 – the body of 84 year old Milton Griffith was found in East LaPenitence after worried neighbours noticed a foul smell.
In May 2016, the body of 74 year old Harry Gobin was found in Canje, neighbours thought the smell was from nearby ‘pig pens’.
In January, 2017 – some people decided to check and found the decomposed body of 73 year old Silvan Hector of Canje River after not seeing him.
In November, 2017 – worried neighbours found the body of 61 year old Tamraadhouj Ramcharran in Essequibo after not hearing from him for two days
At the end of 2017, the skeletal remains of 95 year old Yuland Gibson were found in Essequibo after a neighbour returned and noticed a ‘foul smell’.
There were some other stories. These stories seem new in Guyana, about elderly dying in their homes and not being found until days or weeks after.
Life expectancy has increased. There isn’t much talk though about health care and provision of services, and the payment and subsidy for those services. There are not many options for care centres and social centres for the elderly.
There are many reasons for the isolation of many elderly persons. There are complex dynamics of migration, small family sizes or not wanting to move out of familiar homes. Public transportation is not easy for the elderly. Roads do not have pavements. There are few pedestrian crossings which drivers bother with.
The murders 89-year-old Constance Fraser, and 77-year-old Phyllis Caesar highlight the vulnerability to crime. Petty crimes are not reported.
Some organisations manage programmes to keep people in contact. There are periodic events. But daily contact, and interaction to aid in well-being are not always there. Care givers have to learn how to deal with the process of getting old.
We called the neighbour. The neighbour was concerned. The woman spoke to her neighbour on the phone. She asked her neighbour to get a message to her son.
The son sounded surprised at what was going on.
“Didn’t you call my sister? She lives in town, she has a car”
We took the sister’s number.
We thought it best to ask permission before calling the daughter the woman had not told us about.
The woman said “Don’t call her, she will be vexed and want to keep me by her”
We begged. We had a suspicion of the power dynamics. We were also polite and whispered about the whole thing, trying not to preserve some dignity while also mentally raising eyebrows ‘dese ole’ people aint easy..”
“Ow, we have elderly relatives. No matter what problems, we would want to help if we knew they were in trouble. “
She told us about her daughter and her education and work. There was some pride in the telling. Some of her other children ‘lived outside’. A nephew was an oncologist.
She said “okay..but she is going to quarrel”.
We called. The daughter was shocked. She quarrelled.
“She wants to go home, let her go home, what else can I do?”
The tone was familiar. The frustration and the despair, the desire to be helpful but knowing that the help is not always easy to accept. The tension with the woman who is resisting dependence.
“She was by me, I leave her home, rain pouring I told her hold on, tomorrow you can travel, relax..“
The rain had eased to a fine drizzle. There was a nice cool breeze.
The daughter came. She was flustered, she had to slip away from work.
”She could stay by me as long as she wants.. but she says she want to dead in her own house”
“I gun put you on a hospital bed and leh you ketch back yourself”
The woman stood up straight. Her back was straight.
A woman had told me about her dance teacher’s instructions about the back
“Hold the back straight, your ancestors, they bore burdens on this back, lashes, but they toiled through..they survived “
The woman had toiled through many things. She educated the children, she had worked. She was not going to listen to anybody now.
We parted company. The rain had stopped. She shook our hands and told us thanks.
The two women who had come with me told her to take care and do a check up.
I made one more try, pleading as she shook my hand. “Please, please, instead of thanks, go and check at the Health Centre”
The woman looked back at me and her daughter.
She said, voice strong, slight smile
“No, I am feeling better, thank you, I want to go home now”