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CONVENTION 2000 - Part Three

The Third Day of the Convention, Thursday 27th January 2000 at the Emigrants’ Commission, Castille Place, Valletta.

Third Session - The Elderly and Services available to them:

The topics were:

  • Some statistics about the elderly in the particular State or Country
  • Centres and Services available to them
  • Difficulties being met by the Elderly
  • How can Malta/ the Emigrants’ Commission help in this respect
The Keynote speaker was Professor Anthony H.B. de BONO M.D., M.A. (OXON), F.R.C.S., (Director United Nations International Institute of Ageing - Malta).
Other delegate speakers were:
Dr Stephen Gatt - Australia
Mr Alfred Flask - Australia
Mr Milo Vassallo - Canada
Dr Carmelo Cassar - U.K.
Mr Charles Demicoli - U.S.A.

Mr John Axisa, a long-standing worker in the Department of Emigration in Malta since 1927, gave an introduction, and explained the position of the first emigrants from Malta in the early years of the 20th century. Many had settled in Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and the South of France. It became easy for these to fully integrate in their new social environment, although in different levels of success. Since 1947, however, new laws were passed in those North African countries that affected the immigrants’ progress. They could not exercise their trade or profession, and in Egypt they were even dispossessed of their property. Those who chose to leave the country were not allowed to take their belongings with them. Malta could not receive them because of high unemployment, so their rescue came from the British Government who arranged resettlement for them in Australia, South Africa or England where they were regarded as British subjects under the Imperial practices of the time.

Many thousands who left Malta during the fifties and sixties were almost compelled to seek their fortunes in foreign countries, especially after the poor conditions as a result of the war. It is often said that there is another Malta away from the shores of the Maltese Islands. In most hearts of the migrant population their love for Malta never decreased. In fact these migrants set up their Maltese associations and kept their language and cultural traditions alive. Most of them have spent a lifetime abroad since they left the Islands, and now they are in their later years of life. Sadly many were those who passed away without having one more chance to visit their roots in Malta.

Mr Axisa commented that with mass emigration over the decades, Malta has lost thousands of young and healthy men, women and children who could otherwise have retained the balance in the composition of Malta’s population. The result is that the elderly population has increased by a high percentage and the problem will have to be faced by future generations.

Professor Anthony de Bono opened up his keynote address by highlighting the fact that the general trend is that life is longer than it used to be. People who reach old age are no longer the exception, but the norm. This term is also known as ‘longevity. It is expected that over the next twenty years the number of elderly people in the world will be doubled, and around one third of the population will be elderly. The factors responsable are the decrease in fertility and advances in medicine. The consequences of this will affect everyone in the next few decades.

The old people of today are enjoying better health, nutrition, care, living conditions and respect. They are more active and get involved in human affairs and in modern society generally. Many continue in work for many years after attaining retirement age.

In the medical sense, ‘ageing’ is the process of deterioration that affects most organs, systems, cells and molecular structure in the body. As the years go by the functions of the body weaken and cause the body to become frail. However, with the help of modern science, assistance is available to slow down the process of ageing, and the process of living longer is implemented. Therefore ‘longevity’ becomes the cure of ageing in some respect. Of course, human life will have to end at some stage, but at least it is now possible to prevent unnecessary deaths as a result of lack of provision for those who are getting on in years. The challenge of healthy longevity is indeed formidable.

Another extremely important area for concern is accommodation. While the best place for the elderly is with their families, this is increasingly difficult or impossible. Alternative accommodation must be provided. The care for the elderly including long-term care is in a period of evolution and most would agree that large institutions should possibly be avoided.

The Maltese phenomenon of longevity has been longstanding even before our present times. In 1532 Quintinus wrote his description of Malta and pointed out that one of the remarkable things was that most people seemed to live past the age of eighty years. At that time life expectancy was barley forty years.

Since 1969 Malta played an important role in the United Nations assemblies, which dealt with the question of ageing in the world. The importance of organizing appropriate training in all relevant sectors at all levels was highlighted. Today such training courses are enhanced by a widespread network and distance learning programmes. Malta has maintained its advocacy role in international ageing.

Maltese communities abroad provide an ideal opportunity to compare elderly groups with those in Malta, in particular the effect of environmental factors on those with related gene pools. This would help understand conditions such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension and maybe lung cancer, which are very prevalent in the elderly Maltese.

In conclusion, the Professor stated that longevity is a paramount socio-economic concern. The rapid increase in the over eighty population poses increased challenges. He suggested that a genuine exchange of ideas and information with the Greater Malta Community can enhance the quality of life for the elderly, and at the same time make a worthwhile contribution to world ageing.

Dr Stephen Gatt is a highly qualified Maltese in the medical field and occupies a key place in several health departments in Australia. He produced an excellent report on the general demographic situation in New South Wales, Australia, with particular emphasis on the Maltese population of the area. This was based on the studies carried out during the International Year of Older Persons held in 1999. The detailed technical statistics he provided are of great interest, and these can be simplified as follows:

  • An "elderly persons explosion" is described in the phenomenon of recent decades, and this will affect the world in the next fifty years.

  • This seems to be manifested on a larger scale among the immigrant ethnic population of the late 1940s to mid 1960s from Malta to Australia, Canada and U.S.A. (The UK does not provide such statistics as yet).

  • During the four hundred years between 1540 and 1940 the percentage of elderly population changed only a little, from 5 to 8 per cent. This means that for centuries there were few old people around.

  • We are in the middle of a rapid change, which began in around 1930 and will last for another thirty years from now.

  • Provision of services to the aged must take into consideration the number of elderly people from immigrant communities.

  • Life expectancy continues to rise at a steady (alarmingly?) rate. The estimated average life span for men is 75 years, and for women 81 years.

  • Women live longer than men, and the Maltese live longer, are healthier, live in better conditions and with more access to resources. Most live in the community and few are those who live in institutions.

  • The problem with elderly arises when there is lack of attention by relatives. Many experience neglect, isolation, boredom, and even deprivation.

  • A high percentage exists of uneducated and academically unqualified Maltese migrants, which can contribute to bitter experiences in later years when elderly. Language difficulties can be the major problem.

Taking into consideration the above factors, Dr Gatt urged that the Convention should affirm that older Maltese Citizens are entitled to ethnically-appropriate services for the elderly, with adequate advice delivered in the language they understand, and most of all, the offer of services specifically suitable to meet the needs of the elderly Maltese people. The Maltese Government must be actively involved in providing them with ongoing support to meet all the aspects of their social and cultural life. He suggested that:

(a) The bilateral agreements between Malta and other countries should be expanded;
(b) Facilitate the return of Maltese elderly citizens to Malta;
(c) Create services in Malta to meet the needs of the returned emigrants; and
(d) Send qualified social workers and welfare officers to provide rehabilitation services
     to elderly Maltese citizens abroad.

For this purpose the Church too must endeavour to use its clerical resources to stay close to the old folk. The best respect demonstrated towards the elderly can come from volunteers who will have greater concern for the plight of the ageing Maltese community. After all, what everyone is taught to show from a young age is reverence to those who loved and cared for them as children under the given order to "honour thy mother and father" in their old age.

Mr Alfred Flask is the President of Maltese-Australian Association in Canberra and Queensland, Australia. He relayed the information about his area as supplied by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The numbers of first generation Maltese migrants were 3000 in Queensland, 2000 in South Australia, one thousand in Western Australia and around 400 in the Australian Capital Territory. In all these areas the elderly population exceeds one third of the whole number of migrants.

The services offered to the elderly are aimed at allowing the ageing people to continue living independently for as long as possible. It is quite normal that they do not reside with their children or extended families. Both the Government and privately run venues make centres, nursing homes and hostels available. The elderly, however, have to contribute towards the costs from their own pension. They can also ‘buy’ their place in the hostel, then the money is refunded to the family after their death. Some private hostels or homes negotiate sections specifically for the Maltese elderly. There they can live together as a small community and have special functions organised for them including group outings. The elderly also enjoy the facilities of newsletters and radio programmes to keep them occupied and informed of their surroundings. Cultural and religious events are celebrated as a national food day with access to services and personnel (priests and social/welfare workers) with whom they can talk and share their needs. The Maltese participate in all the Government provisions for all the elderly both collectively and individually as the necessity arises.

The main difficulties of the ethnic migrants are expressed in the fact that they lose their identity as they age. Often they want to return to their country of birth. They want to hear and talk about Malta as though the memories of their homeland are still very fresh in their minds. The result of various surveys generally concludes that the main issues to be dealt with are:

  • Loneliness
  • The need for a Maltese-speaking Community Worker
  •  Help with home maintenance
  • The need for a Maltese residential facility.

Mr Flask urged the Maltese Government to be more conscious of the needs of the elderly Maltese citizens abroad. Since they miss Malta badly in their old age, they should be provided with whatever they need in order to make their final years as comfortable and pleasant as possible. One good suggestion is to erect a retirement village in Malta for all those who wish to return to their homeland. They would be willing to surrender a part of their pension for their own upkeep in Malta rather than giving it to a home where they now reside. Also, many are those who can afford to contribute from their own savings. The speech ended with these words: "The Maltese in Australia are still Maltese and we all love Malta."

Mr Milo Vassallo spoke on the challenges of an ageing society in Canada. He reflected on the present situation in the world and paid homage to the older folk generally who had gone through many hardships and sacrifices that brought for us a safer and stable world which we still enjoy in our present time. Because we understand the struggles faced by our parents, grandparents and great grandparents, we in our turn must face up to the challenge and continue to act in a responsible and compassionate way when dealing with our senior population.

Care for the aged has improved over the years, and the advancement in medical research and adequate treatment for the elderly has resulted in a longer life expectancy and inevitably a considerable increase in the number of people over the age of 65 years. The Canadian Government fully supports further research into the causes and treatment of age-related diseases and illness. Early detection prevents chronic diseases among seniors, and they are further helped by healthier and more educated lifestyles. They are in a better physical and mental condition than their own parents ever were, and therefore they continue to be active for much longer.

The financial status of our seniors has improved considerably in recent decades. For many it has been possible to invest funds through their privately owned residence, savings, adequate pensions, and Government assistance. The improved economic situation of today’s seniors is a definite indicator that adults will be better prepared for retirement and live well into their eighties. Having knowledge and fear that they may suffer neglect by their own family members in their old age, it is reasonable to adopt a way of planning ahead to ensure a comfortable living when they grow old.

As in other developed countries, Canada has its own provision and caring programmes for the elderly, as well as direct help to those in dire need. The Maltese and other ethnic migrants are included in the care offered by several agencies and social policies which have been established to look after the needs of the senior community in that country. The speaker ended by reminding everyone of the necessity that we look after our older generations and set precedents for generations to follow.

Dr Carmelo Cassar is a retired General Practitioner in the medical field. He provided information based on the UK statistics, which refer to the general senior population who are listed as one-person households. Almost one half of these are aged 75 years and two thirds are females.

The Age Concern movement in the UK operates as an umbrella for over 100 National Organisations all of which are in some way concerned with Health and Social Care for the elderly. The concept of care for the aged entices many to contend that the Government ought to take direct action to meet all their needs as senior citizens. They want, whenever possible, to remain in their homes and receive the support and the services they need.

Growing old is not a disease, but changes happen to us all, as we grow older. Physical and mental problems develop progressively, and nowadays many conditions can be treated easily and successfully. The elderly are learning how to help themselves, but there are also professionals who can give adequate advice and care for them. All General Practitioners are required to offer an annual health checks to their patients aged 75 years and over. Local pharmacists can give advice on minor health problems, and people over 60 get their prescriptions free of charge. Subsidies are available to costs in dental care and sight tests including eyeglasses.

The main bodies set up to tackle ageing problems are: Age Concern, Help the Aged, Council and Care for the Elderly, United Kingdom Home Care Association, Alzheimer Disease Society, the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council, and Motability. The Department of Social Services has the overall responsibility of meeting the needs of the elderly in all aspects of their lives. Problems are not lacking either, especially for those with inadequate income and housing, or lack of transport and shopping or leisure facilities. Many are left housebound and isolated, often reducing them to depression and becoming vulnerable to negative attitudes and even physical harm. Age Concern endeavours to solve many of these problems, mainly by enabling old people to solve problems themselves. Day Centres, Lunch Clubs, Home Visits and Transport Services are made available through contractual agreements with local governments. At national level, lasting change and improvement are sought through provision of information and advice, research, training and grants. Added to these are the setting up of Residential and Nursing Homes, House Adaptation (mostly for invalids), Equipment for Daily Living, Alarm Systems, Home Help, Respite Care, and Hospital-At-Home.

To the question of how can Malta help in this respect, the speaker concluded that the elderly in the UK are given access to all governmental or organisational facilities for the aged, and in this respect even the Maltese elderly are able to benefit from these provisions. From the statistics provided in 1996 on Elderly People by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, there is no mention of any particular ethnic community in the United Kingdom that has been surveyed separately from the overall population covered by these statistics.

Mr Charles Demicoli who lived in New York City for almost thirty years was the last speaker on this subject. He stated that most of the Maltese Americans tend to integrate well into the system. There is a Maltese Centre in New York, which serves as a spot to gather the Maltese together, and from where activities for all ages are organised, including cultural events with traditional Maltese input. He noted that a large number of Maltese senior citizens attend at the Centre.

As in almost the rest of the world, life expectancy in the USA has risen to around 82 years. It is seen as a happy turn of events where people enjoy high living standards and excellent health care. Difficulties too arise from issues affecting the elderly, such as Mobility/Access/Transportation, Financial/Accommodation, and Health Needs (Physical/Mental/Social).

With the general trend being similar to most countries, the speaker emphasised on the need to generate interest worldwide and work collectively towards addressing the issues concerning old age in our times. In particular, any programmes by the Maltese Government should include the seeking out of the senior emigrants and streamlining their social clubs and centres towards cultural and social activities. Radio and other media should be geared at reaching out to the elderly. A worldwide federation would help bringing all the resources available to co-ordinate a seriously committed body to deal with relevant elderly issues. A database of the Maltese abroad could help in identifying accurate numbers and areas of need, as well as to exercise referrals to appropriate bodies or agencies that are able to meet those needs. The speaker ended his speech insisting that the elderly should receive the recognition they deserve.

At the end of the session a courtesy visit was paid to the Prime Minister at his Auberge.

In the evening there was the opening of a Photographic Exhibition titled "OUR SHARED HERITAGE" at Dar L-Emigrant, by H.E. Mr Colin Willis, High Commissioner, Commonwealth of Australia.