Ministry of Labour and Social Security’s silence on the eviction last week of senior citizens from a house being used as a nursing home in St Catherine is being described as shameful and disgraceful.
At the same time, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC) said the incident, which saw elderly men and women left on the sidewalk at night, highlights the need for stronger regulation and monitoring of the residential care sector in Jamaica.
The privately-run Pleasant Care Nursing Home in West Bay, Portmore, St Catherine was cleared two Saturdays ago, leaving 20 elders on the street without shelter. While relatives of some of the elderly were able to pick them up, it was not until about 9:30 pm that the others were placed back inside the house by neighbours who had intervened.
Since then, there has been no public discourse by the ministry, which is the arm of the Government responsible for the welfare of seniors.
“Where is the social security right now? So many days passed and not one sound from the ministry. One house full of senior citizens got left on the road like pieces of old furniture and nobody don’t even utter one word all now. The ministry should be ashamed,” one man, whose grandmother was housed at the facility, lamented to the Jamaica Observer.
Another woman, whose grandmother was at the home for some time before she died, said even though the home isn’t Government-run she expects the ministry to speak out, since so many seniors were treated poorly.
“That would be the decent thing to do if we are really trying to say we care about the old people in this country. This is not a good look, and nothing can convince me otherwise,” she argued.
Professor Denise Eldemire-Shearer, director of the Mona Ageing and Wellness Centre, said it’s an issue for which the ministry should be providing information to its team to do work on the ground, “which is more important” than giving updates to the public.
Under the mandate of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, the National Policy for Senior Citizens seeks to enhance the quality of life of senior citizens, with one of its goals being that Jamaica will have improved social protection coverage for senior citizens by 2030.
The policy provides a framework for establishing Government commitments and priorities in effecting enabling environments, and for operationalising the tenets and principles embodied in international and regional instruments regarding the elderly, to which Jamaica is a party, including the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) and the Regional Strategy for Implementation.
The Madrid Plan is a comprehensive action plan for governments and civil society, amongst other groups, for building a society for all ages. It makes recommendations on core issues which can improve older people’s lives. One of the recommendations focuses on supportive environments.
Last Tuesday, Sonia, the woman who runs Pleasant Care Nursing Home, confirmed that the five remaining seniors were moved from the location to a temporary facility.
“We are not there any more. I had to move. I can’t do anything about it,” she told the Sunday Observer, noting that there has been no communication with the owner of the property since the eviction on Saturday, March 11.
The Sunday Observer was told that the Ministry of Health’s Standards and Regulations Unit was engaged to undertake a field visit to the temporary home.
The Sunday Observer also learnt that the owner of the house had presented a court order for Sonia to leave the premises last year. However, she said she wasn’t able to find a new house and as such did not relocate the seniors.
They were left on the back foot when a bailiff visited the property on Friday, March 10, and started removing furniture. The bailiff returned the following afternoon and completed the removal, leaving all the senior citizens outside. The main gate to the house was padlocked.
Some families picked up their elderly relatives throughout the day, and five remained behind. Neighbours discovered a narrow walkway that led to an open door at the back of the property and they used it to take the seniors back inside for the night.
Eldemire-Shearer said there was an absence of tender-heartedness.
“It is certainly a horrible act and shows a total lack of compassion for seniors who needed help and care,” she said of the eviction.
“There are people who will challenge this, saying the person is entitled to their property, and they are, but we have systems, and the Ministry of Social Security or Local Government could have been asked to relocate them, even temporarily to their facilities.”
Anglican Bishop of Kingston Garth Minott, when asked for a reaction to the eviction, highlighted a need to balance legal and moral responsibility.
“Legally, the property owner has a right to have possession, once all steps have been followed to allow the tenant to vacate the property. If these steps were adhered to, the ministry can only use moral suasion, but has no legal power to override the decision of the courts. The ministry could, however, have dialogue with the property owner as well as the operator of the nursing home in order to arrive at a different outcome,” he told the Sunday Observer.
Minott said the dialogue would be based on moral responsibility and a show of respect.
“This is not to endorse overstaying in a rented property as some do, sometimes not paying rent, and this is something that must be addressed, as owners have rights as much as tenants.”
In addition, Eldemire-Shearer said it is necessary to check up on the families that have since retrieved their relatives.
“They have shown they care by picking them up, but they didn’t have time to make necessary arrangements and may be overwhelmed by what has happened. So they may need emotional support as well as financial. Persons placed in homes are sometimes placed there because families cannot cope,” she told the Sunday Observer.
The UN’s Principles for Older Persons stipulates that they “should have access to adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, and health care through the provision of income, family and community support and self-help”.
The principle, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1991 in appreciation of the contribution that older people make to their societies, also states that senior citizens should be able to live in environments that are safe and adaptable to personal preferences and changing capacities.
Sixty-seven-year-old Errol Thompson was among the 20 senior citizens who were left on the street. He is blind and both his legs have been amputated.
“This is very strange to me. I have never experienced anything like that before. So, it is new. I am not really used to the ‘lift up’ thing, and I am [afraid] of it. They [bailiffs] pushed me outside. I have no sight and both of my legs are amputated because of diabetes,” a dejected Thompson told the Observer last week.
Walter Blackstock, 65, had a similar experience. He had been at the house for four years.
“They locked the gate and went away and we were left out here. Some people family members come for them. Well, I didn’t fall in that category. I remain here. They [family] are coming from Clarendon, so it will take a lot of time,” he related at the time.
Jean Lowrie-Chin, chair of Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP), told the Sunday Observer that whether or not there was a legal decision regarding the home, resorting to “callously” locking the seniors outside, exposed to “the elements and other potential harm”, was heartless.
“I’m sure that there must be some legal recourse that the owner of this nursing home can seek for relatives of these persons who were in the nursing home. Nobody should treat our elderly like that, especially disabled elderly,” she said.
Francis Jones, population affairs officer at UNECLAC, told the Sunday Observer that, with an ageing population, there is a growing demand for private nursing care.
“…But measures need to be put in place to protect residents in case of the failure, or deficiencies, in any particular home. Older persons in long-term residential care have a right to decent housing, health-care, and the right to be free from cruel and degrading treatment.”
The situation was brought to the attention of rights group Jamaicans For Justice which said that it was willing to provide legal assistance to the operator of the nursing home in having an emergency hold on the eviction until alternative arrangements can be made.
Lowrie-Chin added, “How could anybody in their right mind do that to our elderly persons who have all of these health issues? It is unspeakable. On behalf of CCRP, I want to say that I condemn the actions that were taken.”
Lowrie-Chin said the incident sends a negative message, not only locally, but to regional bodies about how the aged and elderly population is treated in Jamaica.
“It is a wake-up call for the authorities to ensure that our elderly are better treated. Over the past five years CCRP has been writing and meeting with representatives of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, appealing to them to introduce legislation — an Elderly Care and Protection Act — that can put teeth into some of these policies.”
But Eldemire-Shearer argued, “I am not sure that the action of one person can be used to judge everyone. It is, however, a cause for concern and reminds us how vulnerable our seniors can be to elder abuse, and being put out on the road is abuse.”
Lowrie-Chin pointed to the National Policy for Senior Citizens, and argued that until there is legislation similar problems will arise.
Using the Child Care and Protection Act, which offers mechanisms to ensure that children are protected, as a reference, Lowrie-Chin said, “If anyone knows of an incident of cruelty or abuse to children and they do not report it, they are liable. I would like the same type of laws to be introduced to protect our elderly,” she said.
As at June 2021, older people accounted for 12.6 per cent of Jamaica’s population. That percentage is expected to double by 2050.