Prof Denise Eldemire-Shearer championing the cause of seniors
If effervescence was a person, it would be the beautiful Eldemire girl who married Hugh Shearer and has been championing causes for senior citizens in Jamaica.
Professor Denise Eldemire-Shearer is a medical doctor and the island’s resident ageing expert, who has spent decades engaging, researching, listening, working and developing policy on behalf of Jamaica’s over-60-years cohort.
A dead ringer for former Gleaner Editor-in-Chief Wyvolyn Gager, Eldemire-Shearer says they are often mistaken in public as individuals engage either woman believing they are speaking to the other.
Born into the well-known political Eldemire family, representational politics was not for her, but she could not completely erase it from her DNA as she would later marry Jamaica’s third prime minister, Hugh Lawson Shearer, who she describes as a man of his word.
She confirmed that the “great friendship” her late husband, a former leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), shared with former Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party (PNP) was borne out of mutual respect and admiration through their long association with and involvement in the trade union movement in Jamaica.
Both men have also served as heads of the two island’s major trade unions, Shearer at the helm of JLP-aligned Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and Manley at the PNP-aligned National Workers’ Union.
In a sit-down with The Sunday Gleaner last week, Eldemire-Shearer refused to be drawn into the brouhaha over claims by some of Manley’s adult children that they were not consulted over the Government’s decision to include his image and that another late former prime minister, Edward Seaga, on a new $2,000 note.
Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke has said that “family approval” was received for placing the two political adversaries on the same note.
Manley’s ex-wife, Beverley, said Shearer was the go-between for him and Seaga.
Eldemire-Shearer recalls, though, that when her late husband’s image was to be placed on the face of the $5,000 note – a specimen which is displayed on the wall in her office at The University of the West Indies, Mona – both government and Bank of Jamaica officials engaged her
“But, I don’t think there has been any acrimony until now. ... To me, it (consultation) was just part of the process,” she said.
She does not understand the current controversy.
“He didn’t say anything about being the middleman in the Manley-Seaga issue. But if you look at his career, that was his modus operandi. The Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions [now Joint Trade Union Research Development Council] was the bringing together of the nine trade unions. He always considered how you bring the different groups together. His friendship with Michael Manley was legendary, lifelong and genuine,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.
She confirmed stories of how Shearer went to great lengths to help Manley as he fought cancer years ago.
The story goes that her husband enquired if there was anything he could do to help his dear friend. He was told that Jamaican otaheite apples was all his stomach would hold.
Shearer, a former member of parliament in Clarendon, sourced the apples there and sent them in a Red Stripe beer box to Manley’s home.
Her father, Dr Herbert Eldemire, and Michael’s older brother, Douglas Manley – who were also parliamentarians – were great friends, too, noted Eldemire-Shearer.
“It’s important for us to recognise that behind each politician is a genuine human being. And many of them like each other and are friends behind the scenes. I remember my father telling me that we only fight an election once every five years, in between, it’s business as usual,” she said.
She believes much of the noise is part of the cut and thrust of politics and credited Seaga and Dr Omar Davies, former member of parliament for St Andrew Southern, for breaking down decades-long political barriers through sports.
“I really hope we will all go back to the gentleness and kindness of how we all behaved in the earlier years of politics with everybody dancing side by side as seen during elections,” she said.
Finding fulfilment caring for elderly
The executive director of the Mona Ageing and Wellness Centre, Eldemire-Shearer notes that hypertension is the major illness affecting many of the island’s elderly citizens.
While it is not a precursor to diabetes – another disease affecting a large percentage of Jamaicans – they can co-exist and affecting both male and female Jamaicans of all ages and social and economic status, especially the obese aged.
“Both are precursors to diseases affecting the blood vessel. Diabetes also affects nerve endings, so you will get the neuropathy nerve issues and loss of limbs. Diabetes also affect the kidneys and the eyes,” she said.
Hypertension, however, is the real killer as it damages the blood vessels. Combined with obesity and high cholesterol, it will affect the heart, brain and kidneys. Persons with hypertension are prone to heart attacks and strokes, and “more and more we are seeing dementia in the over 80s in people who have high blood pressure”, she told The Sunday Gleaner.
For someone who has given her life’s work in this caring for the elderly, she is seeing progress – even if they are baby steps. COVID-19, she believes, has helped the effort.
“I think COVID has actually been a blessing in terms of putting emphasis on the healthcare needs of older people by virtue of them being targets of the COVID through vaccination. They were recognised as a vulnerable group and measures were put in place immediately to deal with their needs,” she explained.
She is happy that aged population has the highest percentage of individuals fully vaccinated in Jamaica. While there was an assumption that primary healthcare met everyone’s needs, still she believes Jamaica has done “pretty well” on the social needs of older people.
Help shape policy
Through the National Council for the Aged, formed mid 1970s, the elderly were given a voice to help shape policy. The body showcased skills “and contributed to development” – not to gross domestic product (GDP). The 1997 national policy for the aged is now under review, but non-governmental organisations, including churches, have benefited greatly from their matured population.
With more Jamaicans were living well into their 70s and 80s, Eldemire-Shearer said that the focus has been shifted from retirement and pension at age 65 to providing services. The country, she said, however, must do more to convince citizens to invest in a private pension as less than 20 per cent of Jamaicans contribute to a scheme.
Caring for the aged poor is an issue that will not go away for another three generations, Eldemire-Shearer believes, noting that the promotion of healthy ageing practises such as exercise is critical.
Lifestyle changes must promote healthy and active ageing, she told The Sunday Gleaner.
Screening, which is locally available, for illnesses and conditions such as falls, incontinence, immobility and memory issues – called the geriatric giants – should begin in the mid 50s, she said, as falling was not automatic with age. Instead questions should be asked about whether one is wearing the correct shoes, problems with the middle ear, bones becoming osteoporotic or blood pressure movements causing dizziness.
Questions about memory loss do not automatically mean dementia, she noted, as a B12 deficiency could be the cause.
Two studies in 1989 and 2011 found that loneliness was the major concern of the aged.
The 2011 study found that 72 per cent of older persons were fine living alone.
“I think loneliness has actually got worse now. That’s why grandparenting plays such a phenomenal role in life. The church – look at the ages of people in the church and the committees they lead. They need interaction from family and church. And from families, nothing heals illness like love,” she said.
Eldemire-Shearer recommends a comprehensive health check at age 60 years to provide baseline information to inform for what will happen at age 70 years onwards.
“We need to strengthen the primary healthcare system, the knowledge base of the healthcare providers, and the time. Older people, especially 75 and over, where they are living alone, they do like to talk. So it will not be a 10-minute interview. You have to allow more time, but it difficult in the current system with one healthcare provider to 40 and 50 patients ... ,” she said.
Incontinence, which leads to the loss of control of body functions, was not a normal part of ageing, but a result of diabetes, which causes increase urination and infection.
Prolapse caused by the inevitable loss of muscle mass also cause incontinence, she said, but noted that it does not have to disrupt lives. Skin and nailcare were important to the aged and natural coconut and olive oil were good for the skin.
Foot soaks with Epsom salts are also recommended as one ages.
She said it was wrong to conclude that old people “wet themselves, have no teeth, can’t see, and talk foolishness”.
Greater inclusion needed for seniors
Pairing young and old – whether related or not – can provide great teaching moments for both, said Eldemire-Shearer, who dreams of one day seeing day centres for the aged established where their needs can be met via skills being taught to them and by them.
She also wants to see at least one nightclub for the aged, but pointed out that no one has taken on the challenge to date.
Older persons should also be part of financial education information campaigns, which should be encouraged.
She expressed concerns that there were not enough chronic care facilities for individuals who become frail and bedbound as a result of strokes and amputations.
Closer to families
Many older persons were being cared for at home where they were closer to families, but proper training on how to move the bedbound, obese individual and general ‘how to’ information, as well as regulation, were urgently required.
Greater screening of individuals in the caregiving industry was also needed, she said, urging younger persons struggling with caring for older relatives to get information as too much focus is being placed on the first 35 years of life and not enough on midlife and menopause.
Eldemire-Shearer advises older folks to settle their final arrangements well in advance and leave specific instructions as to who should do what at the end.
When not working, the Eldemire girl is gardening and caring for her two dogs.
From roses in a pot in the early days to everything else, plus a stone garden, 30 minutes of morning gardening is “very therapeutic”, even on weekends.
The exercise provides fresh air and the sunlight she needs, she pointed out.
And as she approaches age 70 in June, she, too, bears some of the pitfalls of the aged. She has battled hypertension and has bone issues with already one replacement surgery.
But nothing is wrong with her brain and her thought processes, and if anything rears its head, she will fight.
Her biggest fear, however, is blindness as her eyes have been the doorway to her life’s work. Her independence will make her “problematic” – she said with a hearty laugh – when “that time comes”, which family already knows.
But as like in the past, Eldemire-Shearer is never too far from a fight and is getting her gloves ready for any future impairment to her progress.