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Sunday, February 12, 2006
Seniors and their pensions
Stabroek News

Once again, despite a laudable effort by the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security to streamline the distribution of old age pension voucher books, some senior citizens have experienced difficulties obtaining them. It was "misinformation" about the distribution centres, Minister Bibi Shadick said, that saw some pensioners turning up at the wrong place, spending hours there and then being told they had to go elsewhere.

In an effort to obviate the chaos that had become synonymous with the annual distribution of old age pension voucher books, the ministry took a decision to revolutionize the system once again. This system had been changed before, at least twice in recent years, but had continued to prove unmanageable. This year, as was announced in January, the ministry undertook to "explore" house-to-house distribution of the books as well as multiple distribution centres in some areas where there were too many pensioners to go house to house.

The new system was tested in Region Two and Region Three and, the ministry said, it worked, possibly because there are not very many pensioners in those areas. However, Georgetown proved different. It was obvious that the house-to-house handing out of books in the city would have been a logistical nightmare. So, wisely, this was limited to shut-ins only, while mobile seniors were asked to go to centres near their homes. This should have moved smoothly, but it did not.

One of the more obvious reasons for the "hiccups" in this system was that no one seemed to have taken into account the fact that older folks get confused; they forget. So even though they may have been told to go to a particular place, if they happened to forget what that place was, and likely some of them would, they would have gone to the last familiar place, or wherever they were used to going to receive their books in previous years. But it would have been the wrong place.

The system was also too rigid. Pension books were being handed out at specific centres at specific times, so if the seniors arrived late, they lucked out. Again, it appears, not enough consideration was given to the fact that many of these older folks could have transportation difficulties - it is known that some minibuses refuse to take them; some can no longer move around as quickly as they once did; others who need help getting around might have had to wait until someone was available to take them.

Then there was that particularly repulsive incident at the Georgetown Cricket Club, where a younger woman, not a ministry employee, issued a vulgar threat to the pensioners, who after having waited for some three hours had naturally become raucous in their need to be served. Clearly the ministry had no control over that incident, as it had just one employee there who was already overwhelmed by the clamouring seniors. But it should not be allowed to happen.

And as if that were not bad enough, Minister Shadick complained in a press release issued through GINA that she had received reports about some post offices refusing to pay pensioners. She singled out the Bourda Post Office as one place where this has been happening despite the fact that the government had already handed over a sum to the Guyana Post Office Corporation to cover old age pensions for the year. She said pensioners had been turned away when they turned up to change their vouchers.

Perhaps when it does its post mortem of the pension book distribution this year, the ministry should also examine taking its business elsewhere. An alternative that should be looked into is paying old age pensions directly into pensioners' bank accounts wherever possible, which would mean that fewer voucher books would have to be printed and distributed. The ministry can then use its staff to do spot checks instead, verifying that persons receiving pensions are still alive and resident here. It can also look at alliances with banks and other institutions, which already offer special services to seniors, to allow for the widest possible payment network. This would also reduce the long lines at the post offices at month end. Seniors deserve to be treated with patience and respect especially by those who claim to be doing them a service.