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OUR POPULATION IS GRAYING

Can public hearings serve as an avenue for long term change?
If the goal is to sensitize people to the fact that elderly needs exceed the resources of the government and the community, then the goal is being realized.
If the intention is to come up with long-term solutions, then we collectively and historically have fallen short of the mark. This may get worse before it gets better.
Resources for senior citizens have not kept pace with the need due to fiscal woes, not placing seniors at the top of the priorities listing and other contributing factors.
As a matter of fact, in the case of long-term nursing care at the Grigg and Queen Louise homes, the latter compounded by damages from Hurricane Marilyn, it has actually deteriorated.
Are you aware that due to lack of money, half of the Herbert Grigg Home on St. Croix was closed about three years ago and that its re-opening could accommodate everyone on the waiting list? Should we consider privatizing it? Would this help?
The 1995 V.I. Population and Housing Survey conducted by the University of the Virgin Islands shows there are 14,495 persons over the age of 60, or 14 percent of the population, living here. If, for the sake of argument, you include all persons older than 50, then the number of seniors jumps to about one-fourth. This virtually parallels the national average of 26.5 percent.
Did you know that the number of seniors jumped by 43 percent in the Virgin Islands from 1980 to 1990? We were not prepared then and we still are not ready.
As the baby boomers reach 65, this population will further increase. Are we ready? Will people have to continue to send their parents off-island for care? Do you want to be one of those shipped elsewhere because your children cannot meet your needs cost-effectively in the Virgin Islands?
Take the high incidence of poverty in the general population, added to by the immigrants who are not eligible for Social Security because they came here too late or their employers failed to pay into the system for them, and you can clearly see that many cannot afford the care and/or support services they need.
Many of our poor elderly receive "welfare" and, as a result, get $120 monthly. In the states, they would get SSI, which might be three to five times that amount, thereby enabling them to maintain a more decent standard of living. Can you imagine living on $120 a month in the Virgin Islands?
If hearings can resolve these complex issues, then I am all for them. If not, they should be replaced by a think-tank and planning entity that can recommend viable solutions, including new funding.
Perhaps they can determine whether we are using our current funding effectively or find ways to encourage more churches and nonprofit entities to make seniors their priority.
Some jurisdictions fund senior programs with a special inheritance tax. While that may not be possible here, there must be other ways to generate revenues for the elderly.
We are all on the way to becoming elderly, like it or not. Would it not be great to have St. Croix become the Retirement Paradise of the Caribbean? They have the ideal climate and topography. We may just need to market it to encourage investors to see the potential in this area.
Retirement communities and their needs are very labor intensive and could help St. Croix match the need for jobs. Retirees and seniors require many services, from the very simple to the most complex. This could be one more significant step to achieving full employment on St. Croix. Are there not advantages of having the St. Croix Hospital become one of the top geriatric facilities in the area?
Yes, hearings can sensitize our community to the unmet needs of our elderly, which is also important, but planning and action have to follow. We can join forces to do this.

Editor's note: Catherine L. Mills, a former Human Services commissioner, holds a master's degree in social work.

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