Looking after our elderly

Tuesday August 27, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

The archetypical Polynesian community is a special thing.

Its members look after each other. The sum of all parts trumps each part.

Traditionally, villages raised babies and took care of their elderly.

To an extent, they still do. But as the economy shifts and times change, social patterns evolve.

Too often in today’s society, elderly people are left behind and alone, as younger generations head offshore in search of jobs.

Every person who is neglected in his or her old age represents a chink in the armour of tradition and community. And while we probably can’t reverse the societal shift, we can work toward mitigating its negative consequences.

Older people are treasure troves of knowledge.

They remember what the world used to be like, and they’ve watched it change in dramatic ways.

Most elderly people remember a time before television and mobile phones and the worldwide web. Some were around before European influence really took root in the Cook Islands; they remember a time when kaiou was common currency, an era before motorbikes and before corned beef was a dietary staple.

They all have stories – some tragic, others inspiring, and all of them unique. They are the keepers of traditional wisdom and a living link to the past. They are also the reason we are here.

In order to give them due respect, it’s important that we continue to support organisations like Meals on Wheels and the Are Pa Metua, which look after those elderly people who may have fallen through the cracks in the community.

I was pleased to read recently about the Japanese government’s extension of $300,000 to Meals on Wheels in Atiu and Aitutaki, and to Te Vaerua, the Mauke Homecare Programme and the Mangaia Elderbility Project.

These are organisations and programmes that are moving in to fill the gaps created by the fragmentation of the traditional community structure.

I read last week in Cook Islands News about a Meals on Wheels worker on Atiu who visited the home of a local mama to deliver a plate of food. While there, she discovered that the mama had a poisonous wound, and arranged for her to receive necessary medical attention.

This vignette is testament to the enormous value of a programme dedicated to checking in with – and checking up on – elderly people who might be living alone.

A programme like Meals on Wheels is about “more than just a meal”, according to the website for its Australian chapter.

“It is also about ensuring people who may not be able to get out and about, enjoy regular social interaction and the comfort of knowing someone will drop by regularly to say hello and see how they are going.”

The Are Pa Metua abides by a similar philosophy, providing its mamas and papas with not only a meal but also with an opportunity to be around other people. Social interaction, researchers have found, greatly reduces an elderly person’s vulnerability to mental deterioration, dementia, and depression.

These programmes are a great start, but they can’t rival the power of a community commitment to the elderly – to helping them out with meals and chores, keeping them company, and popping into their homes for a chat. That’s a beautiful Cook Islands custom whose torch younger generations should be poised to carry well into the future.

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