Cherish Our Elderly

By  Fay Volatabu,General Secretary for the National Council of Women Fiji.
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Fay reflects on the joys of the Fijian family, changes and challenges, and Government setting up the Old Peoples; Council.

THE Christmas festivities are done and the New Year has started with all its promises, wonders, visions and challenges. Someone once said how you start your new year depends on how you left the old one.
When I look back at 2011, I can see that towards the end of the last year, I made new friends, made new commitments, laid plans for new programmes and then drew up an annual planner for activities both professionally and personally.

I spent the latter part of last year helping a friend look for a house for her retired dad and back to the village for two days to celebrate my favourite uncle's 80th birthday. In a nutshell, I felt the latter part of last year was spent reminding me of the responsibilities we as young (though that term used on me is debatable) people have towards our parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents. It was also at the latter part of last year that government made plans for the "older people in our country" through the establishment of a decree and a council to look into the needs of our senior citizens.

When the idea was first made public, my initial response was 'why on earth do we need a decree for older persons?' They are the most well-looked after and loved members of our families and to have a separate decree and a council to look into their welfare is frankly quite ridiculous as they enjoy all the spoils in life.
I was brought up on the values that we live in the circle of life and we are looked after by our parents and adults in our lives. Then we start contributing to the family needs in addition to our own needs and when the time comes, we start taking on the responsibilities and eventually start looking after our parents before they leave us.

The movie Benjamin Button starring Brad Pitt symbolises this when Benjamin grows backward. He is born an old man and when he dies he ages back to an actual baby who has no recollection of life itself. If we follow the circle of life, we would not need to have an older people's council but our own younger family members to look after the older generation.

My friend whose dad has lived in the US for more than two decades wants to come back home to retire. His children who are scattered all over the globe came home and were looking for a house to buy for their father to retire peacefully with his relatives around him. He still believes in a Fiji that values the old and that his children would look after him.

My 80-year-old uncle had four generations of the family and neighbouring kinsmen and women together to celebrate his life. As I sat to enjoy the festivities and meet people I never knew I was closely related to, I thought 'wow, this is what Fijian kinship, family and responsibilities are all about'.
Even though the four generations of family members live in Australia and others scattered all over the globe, we were all there to celebrate the life of a senior citizen who has directly or indirectly affected our lives.
I would be so lucky to have that kind of celebration as today Fijians are more "modern" or "western" but does it mean that we have to forget our kin and family in the process of wanting to be like the Jones? Must we or need we forget our older relatives in the process?

Now in Fiji, where we are defined by our kinship. For me, to have an older people's council means losing all sense of moral obligations and respect. The government, seeing how the older people are not cared for, has legalised the care and welfare of our older citizens. It is a commendable act by the government but as a Fijian, I feel so ashamed that we have to resort to decrees and councils to know our responsibilities.
We have conventions to look after our children and that is fair as we were brought up on sticks and corporal punishment as a way of life. The CRC at least ensures that we provide our children a more loving environment to grow up where the stick is not the answer and children are listened to and given a fair chance to grow in a healthy and loving environment.

We have the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to give our women better opportunities, a better chance and legal rights in the acquisition of property and benefits in their advancement. We need that but to have an older persons decree is a shameful act as it defines the way we have lapsed in our responsibilities. The Fijian culture reveres the older generation regardless of their gender and it is an honour to have people with white hair included in any family gatherings. The Bible which most Fijians read as Christians defines having white hair as crowns so our older kinsfolk are likened to kings and queens and that we must honour our parents and older family members.

Yet today, we note some of the responsibilities of the old people's council:
  • Co-ordinate care and rehabilitation of older persons, formulate policies to ensure services are provided or older persons in Fiji and seek financial assistance to help in the provision of services for older persons;
  • Organise seminars, workshops relating to problems and needs of older persons, assist in the training of personnel involved in care, training, education and rehabilitation of older persons, create awareness of the problems and the aspirations of older persons though educational and media awareness;
  • Work towards the elimination of causes of discrimination of older persons and establish a national older persons fund.
These are some of the proposed functions of the council for older persons and again, all I can feel is shame and embarrassment that most or all these activities which are the responsibilities of the family members are now given to government. The government is there for the improvement of life and for the provision of essential services. I thank them for their effort but is looking after our parents a government responsibility? Yes, they need free bus passes or they need free medical services but some responsibilities should be left to family members. Wouldn't it have been better to have a decree which penalises children or young people who disrespect their parents and the older generation.

All the functions above are the functions of a family. If a parent can provide for their children and in some cases they continue to provide even after they are gone, shouldn't we the children or younger generation give back to our parents by looking after them? I know of an old lady who continues to look after her sons, their wives and children to this day. I know of a young wife who chased her mother-in-law out of her house. She was given a tiny bed in the corner of a double storey house. The government should penalise such monsters and the decree should focus on how to make young people be more responsible for their parents and older family members and the penalties or rewards for their action.

Fiji is a culturally-rooted nation with a beautiful value system. I grew up knowing the value and beauty of family and even now I am greatly grieved at the way the older generation are being disrespected by some youth and young professionals. Fiji is also a deeply religious country and in all the religions, respect for the old is a key component of our faith .

Yet, we need a government decree to care for our older generation? Is this what families mean today? Is this what mothers are teaching their children? Is this what schools are teaching our students? Is this what the churches are teaching our congregations? Is this what society thinks of our older generation?
If this is so, then can I be young forever like the movie In time? We are not in a movie or in a story and we need to re-establish the morals and values of our society so that when we enter the circle of life, each man or woman would know what is expected of them. We would not need an older persons decree to define our roles but our conscience dictating us on what is right, what is proper and what is our purpose in life.
This year, can we all look at the older members of our families and treat them with the love, care and more importantly the respect that they deserve?

Have a New Year that is focused on respecting our older generation Fiji!


Anonymous said…
cherish our elderly ... special pleading Croz?

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