Growing old in Cayman

 With the protracted global downturn having eaten into most people’s pensions and investments, visions of a golden retirement have evaporated for many people and increasing numbers are warily facing the prospect of growing old in Cayman.
   Better health care and nutrition over successive decades has led to increased life expectancy. So what is it like to be elderly in Cayman today?
   The Observer on Sunday’s spoke to four senior citizens to hear their stories. Two of the elderly people live in their own homes in North Side, and of the two in George Town: one is a resident of the Pines Retirement Home and the other lives in an assisted living villa near the 35-bed residential and day care facility.
    
   North Side resident, Athelyn Miller wears her 81 years well despite having had a stroke, being partially blind and in her own words “riddled with arthritis”.
   She gets by on a modest widow’s pension following the death of her husband.
   With enough to pay her bills and to put aside for her funeral arrangements, she does not hanker after more.
   “I’m happy with what I have and that’s the way I live,” she says.
   Mrs. Miller, who comes from Pease Bay, thinks that leading a fulfilling old age is largely down to retaining your links with the community and having faith. “I thank God every morning before I put my feet on the ground. I thank him for sparing me another day,” she says.
   Her days are mainly spent crocheting and doing tatting (a type of handicraft) in her built-in porch and catching up with friends and family on the phone.  “What I’ll do is call around to different people,” she says.
   A widow since 2002, Mrs. Miller lives alone in the same house that she and her husband, Mactavis, moved into when they married in 1960. Her son Chester Watler and daughter-in-law Judy live in the same large compound next door. Her Jamaican helper, Del occasionally sleeps over.
    Although not as mobile as she used to be, she nevertheless relishes the chance to get out of the house. Twice a month, she attends a seniors’ fellowship club at her local church. “We read the Bible, pray and do a lot of laughing and chatting,” she says.
   She is taken to the club by North Side’s Community Development Officer Wendy Quinlan, another link to the outside world.
    “I do anything I want to do. I go out and plant seeds: peppers, any kind, and if I feel I can, I take the rake and rake my yard,” she says.
    “I sweep my own house… I cook my own food,” she says.
    For her growing old in Cayman, is all about being happy with your lot and maintaining interests.
   “I’ve got a good life and I don’t want for anything,” she says.
   “Here now there are people like Wendy who demand you go out.
   “In them days, the elderly didn’t have anybody to take them [because] the men were overseas.  The only one left with my father and mother was me. I had to do everything myself, go into the bush to cut wood, bring water out of the wells in the dry season,” she says.
   The first time she went abroad was in 1975 when she visited her sister in Flagler Beach, Florida.
   “I’ve always been the kind of person who doesn’t need or like luxuries, but I like to be comfortable,” she says looking around her neat and comfortable home.
   Resourceful and surprisingly self-sufficient, she enjoys the company of her extended family. “I have another niece Gem, she doesn’t live close by but she comes to look for me and takes me out, takes me down to her house in Spotts/Newlands.
   “I sit down and she cuts my toe nails and paints them. I enjoy that,” Mrs. Miller remarks.
    “I don’t worry about old age. I hear people say “I don’t like old age because I can’t get around” but you can do anything”. I say to them listen, what could you do before… and why did you give it up for?
   She does worry about the recent rise in crime locally.
    “Two men shot, one in the shoulder in West Bay… It’s so heart rending to hear all this,” she said talking about the recent spate of gun violence. She starts talking about the shooting of four-year-old Jeremiah Barnes but stops short and shakes her head sadly.
   Asked if she thinks any more could be done for Cayman’s elderly, she returns to memories of her first trip overseas, aged 76. “I was wondering why Cayman can’t have communities for the elderly I saw there. A place that was central and had all that we need nearby,” she says.
    
   Cromwell Ebanks is a well turned-out man. Thin and studious looking, at 90 he is in the middle of writing his autobiography.  The project of writing his life story is his way of passing on his legacy on to his children and grandchildren, especially since two strokes almost deprived him of the ability to speak.
    A resident of what locals refer to as “the Hut,” Mr. Ebanks was born at Rum Point and tells visitors what was originally known as Great Point was renamed after a US ship ran ashore there in 1913 and was divested of its cargo, which included cases of rum.
    Points of history like that are Mr. Ebanks’ passion, which is hardly surprising when one learns that he was one of the co-founders of the political party system in Cayman. At the time a vestryman, he, Warren Conolly and Ormond Panton formed The People’s National Party in 1946. 
   Growing old for him meant returning to live in Grand Cayman after decades living with family in southern California. Moving back to Hutland, he left his wife Lela and some of their children in the US. “This is my native land,” he says, when asked why he came back.
   His jobs as a marine police officer and politician have given him an empathy for his fellow citizens.
   Apart from his family, Mr. Miller’s driving force is the Faith Christian Church in Bodden Town. A pastor of the small church, he relishes his work in the local community.
    Spending his remaining days in Cayman was the right decision for him, he says. “I’ve grown old patiently. I went back to my farming, growing sweet potatoes, cassava and tomatoes,” he says of the years following his return.
   He thinks that aging locally among his people and those who share his particular type of faith makes getting older much easier. “I’m a man of God. I’m growing old timely, patiently and willingly,” he says.
   What the former politician and ex-campaign manager for MLA Ezzard Miller would like to see, however, is “somewhere in the eastern districts where we could have recreational facilities, so we could play dominoes or cards”.
    Having “built [a political] party and put a hatchet to it,” Mr. Ebanks is a proponent of small government. “Government is helping [the elderly],” he contends. “We don’t expect [it] to do everything. We’ve got to help ourselves. God helps those who help themselves,” he says.
    
For those who were brought up in Cayman, Olive Miller MBE, Cert. Hon, JP needs little introduction. But for newer arrivals, the only living recipient of one of five Distinguished Women of History – an award bestowed on her during the Islands 2003 Quincentennial celebrations – is probably seen as just another of Cayman’s silver haired matrons.
   Ageing in Cayman for the woman who was a pioneer in the voluntary field has its draw backs.  “For years I was so used to being active in a number of church groups and voluntary clubs, so losing sight in my left eye robbed me of many things in one day… my ability to read, drive, use the computer, do crosswords to name a few,” she says.
   “But I’ve got good peripheral vision in both eyes,” for which she is grateful.
   Though Mrs. Miller does not down play the profoundly retrograde impact her failing sight has had on her life, she keeps busy. ‘You have to have something to get up in the morning for,” she says.
    As well as visits from her daughter Kathryn and her grandson, she likes to keep up with friends both locally and overseas.
   She helps out at Miss Nadine’s pre-school four times a week and is part of Elmslie Church’s visiting team visiting shut-ins once a week.”
   Her quality of her life vastly improved when the Lions Club of Grand Cayman, the Pink Ladies Volunteer Corps and Cayman Prep School clubbed together and bought her a Japanese Neo reading machine. The gift, from those organisations she had either helped found in the early days or has unstintingly supported over the years, is greatly appreciated by the 88-year-old.
   The machine has pride of place in her assisted living villa (bought on lease from the Pines) and means that she can put a book, a magazine or a pamphlet face down on the scanner below and read their contents on the screen above –  magnified to poster-sized print. The device is helping her write a children’s book of poems.
   Her “three small pensions from the Cayman Islands government and the other small pension from the UK,” mean that Mrs. Miller can “pay all [her] bills and give away a little bit.”
   “So long as I’ve got a roof over my head, food, friends and family I get along well enough,” she says. “As long as you say you can’t, you won’t.”
   She says that her long experience in community work, coupled with her experiences as a member of the committee that organises the International Month for Older Persons, gives her unique insight into the lives of Cayman’s seniors.
   “I must say that senior citizens in Cayman are very well cared for.  I expect there are some neglected old people, but I think they are very far and few between.”
   Speaking positively, Mrs. Miller mentions the functions in each district and the weekend retreat which are part of Older Persons Month, spearheaded by people like Zemrie Johnson.
   The recipient of 16 community awards, including the Spirit of Excellence from government given out on Heroes Day 2009, says that as well as looking out for the elderly, the country needs to take care of its youth. “I’m not one of those that continually like to bash youngsters. It’s no way of encouraging them,” she says.
   Mrs. Miller says for its size, Grand Cayman is well supplied with old folks’ homes.
   “Each district has its own old people’s home. Residents in The Pines are very well looked after and East End and West Bay have their Golden Age Homes,” she notes.
    “On the whole, I think that government do well,” she says.
   
   Rosa Coe has been a resident at the Pines for the past three years.
   Confined to a wheelchair due to osteoporosis, she lived at home and was a day care visitor at the residential home until her health declined.
   She says that the transition from living in her own home to living with 34 others was greatly eased by already “knowing the Pines and the staff”.
   She enjoys watching shows like Bewitched; The Price is Right and Judge Judy and rarely turns down the chance of having a staff member read her Bible stories.
   The former pharmacy worker, who as a young woman studied to be a lawyer in Nicaragua, says that advancing old age is daunting but inevitable, and that she does not dwell on it. “I have people who love me and take care of me. Sure, I have my bad days but I don’t get down for long.”
   She is able to get out in the Pines’ mini bus twice a week. Trips to Wendy’s, Arthur Treachers, Pedro St. James and the Dolphin Park are part of the monthly schedule of group activities, which keep her busy.
    Her son, Vernie, pays for her to stay at the Pines.
   Although she knows it would not benefit her directly, she would like to see more opportunities for the elderly in Cayman to be more independent. “There are no jobs for the elderly in Cayman,” she says.

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