Given the fact that the world’s population is aging rapidly, calls are being made for countries to take the necessary steps to ensure that people reach old age in the best possible health. Everyone desires to reach their ‘golden years’ in good health as better health is central to human happiness and well-being. It also makes an important contribution to economic progress, as healthy populations live longer and are more productive etc.
According to the WHO, in the next few years, for the first time, there will be more people in the world aged over 60 than children aged less than five. Additionally, the WHO has predicted that by 2050, 80% of the world’s older people will be living in low- and middle-income countries.
It should be stated that the Caribbean has been recognised as having one of the fastest growing older populations in the developing world. This certainly poses its own challenges and governments and other actors will be required to take the necessary measures to ensure that this segment of the population is adequately taken care of.
Even though the issue of aging populations and how they could be better cared for is not one that is known to dominate discussions at the national and international levels, it has implications for a range of social policies for the region. As is the case with many other countries, one of the main health challenges for older people in Guyana is non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and chronic lung disease. There is therefore an urgent need for health authorities to take appropriate steps to prevent non-communicable diseases, and to ensure that systems and the necessary services are in place to provide treatment and care when it is required. Many of these services are highly cost-effective. For example, high blood pressure – a key risk factor for both heart disease and stroke – can be effectively treated at a minimal cost.
Also, the risk of developing non-communicable diseases can be significantly reduced by adopting healthy behaviours, such as being physically active, eating a healthy diet, avoiding the harmful use of alcohol and not smoking or using tobacco products. The earlier people adopt these behaviours, the better their chance of enjoying a healthy old age.
On this basis, there should be greater awareness and knowledge in the society about the dangers of chronic illnesses. What is needed is an aggressive awareness campaign to address various health issues. For example, research has shown that the numerous media campaigns on HIV/AIDS prevention and care, stigma and discrimination have impacted positively on attitudes and lifestyle changes. Messages in a similar fashion should be created and distributed for non-communicable illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes as this is an effective means of encouraging behavioural changes.
The Caribbean Charter on Health and Ageing 1998 has as its guiding principle, a coordinated, systematic approach to ensuring the health and full integration of older persons into Caribbean societies and economies.
The Charter was adopted at the Second Meeting of the Council for Human and Social Development in 1998, and launched in 1999. It recognises the principle that “health and wellness encompasses the need for preventive strategies, creation of supportive environments and the availability of senior-friendly goods and services”.
Included in this guiding principle are many recommendations geared towards ensuring that the older population lead healthier and happier lives; these include; developing and strengthening policies on ageing; developing a Bill of Rights in support of the elderly; sensitising health workers about the special needs of the elderly; strengthening primary health care services targeted at the elderly; establishing norms and standards for institutional care of the elderly; working with caregivers to ensure that standards of care are being met; preparing adults for healthy aging; educating the elderly on ways to maintain and improve their health and collaborating with Government organisations, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the media.
The time has come for Governments in the region, including Guyana, to measure the progress made and perhaps determine where there is need for improvement as it relates to caring for the elderly population.