Friday, August 28, 2009

Intern's Voice, Yini Qiu

I usually wake up at 7:45 am and leave my dormitory at 8:20 am. My weekdays start with several warm morning greetings from all my fellow GAA co-workers.

This is Yini Qiu. I am currently a graduate student from School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University in California. My home is in Shanghai, China. I came to the United States about a year ago.

I still remember the first day at GAA. After my supervisors and the other interns welcomed me, the program coordinator started the orientation session. She explained almost every chapter in GAA intern guide book, including the dress code and the interns’ daily work. I was surprised to be treated in such professional way. Compared to the internship that I did before, GAA cares about interns and believes interns do make a difference.

Once I had the chance to sit at the CEDAW (Committee to Eliminate Discrimination against Women) conference in a UN’s conference room. Being exposed to such a great environment gave me a concrete idea of the UN rather than just an abstract image. The experience broadened my horizon.

I work on a full-time basis here in GAA and am in charge of the Chinese section for all the topics that GAA covers. Through very wide reading on the aging issue, I’ve collected a lot of information and have learned so much from it.

The research itself is helpful and some articles provide answers to questions that were raised in earlier postings. For example, the article,
China’s Future will be Hobbled by Old Age , throws into question how China will deal with the situation of “getting old before getting rich.” This is a very tough fact. While I am reading it, I keep searching for a possible solution because I will be facing this situation soon. What will we Chinese do?

A week later, I found an article about the Japanese retired workers’ life. It enlightened me. Called”
The Life after Retirement in Japan(Article in Chinese), the author suggests that life in the old age can be wonderful and as meaningful as young people’s. So perhaps China may not solve its aging challenge perfectly, but if the nation keeps improving and making the situation of older people better, then we are on the way to achieving our goal. And this is what GAA tries to do, I think.

Yes, I am learning from GAA, a lot, and GAA is supported by all the interns’ working together. And I am proud of the team I work with and feel involved and fulfilled. I have a new awareness and understanding of older people’s needs, as well as instrumental and practical solutions to their issues. I have worked on related UN projects, such as the proposed human rights convention on rights of older people and how NGOs can work with governments to achieve such a lofty goal.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Intern's Voice, Cyrus Jalai

The days of a GAA intern consistently offer something new, unexpected, thus fostering a true sense of purpose and responsibility. It’s this quality about working with GAA that first caught me and drew me in. I really relish in the thought that I can actually do something profitable to actively help people.

My name is Cyrus Jalai and I’ve been with Global Action on Aging since July 1, 2009. I am currently an upcoming senior at Riverdale Country School at the top of the Bronx. Riverdale is the type of high school which offers a challenging liberal arts education yet manages to balance that with great spirit and extracurricular involvement. In particular, it’s that liberal arts-style education that first inspired me to pursue other interests and to expand my horizons, first leading me to GAA. Riverdale also encourages its students to go out and truly make an effort to have an influence in people’s lives, another reason for my internship.

Something that GAA celebrates is the cultural diversity of its interns, and though I am a full-time resident in the US, I am no exception to this rule. I moved from Toronto, Canada in 9th grade in 2007 to New York City. I’ve been living in New York City for two years, and yet, when I’m away from the city, I feel the constant nagging feeling that I need to return. I’ve really only started to get to know the city, but despite my short time here, I feel like a true part of its proverbial “soul.”

Being one of the only two high schools students here at GAA can be daunting, yet it makes me work harder in an attempt to put myself on par with the majority of the other interns here, who are mostly college-level and graduate students. Indeed, it’s challenging to pit my knowledge against that of twenty-something year olds, but the obstacles, as well as the other interns, teach me immeasurably every day.

My tasks here at GAA are generally very similar in nature: researching articles pertaining to world and local elder rights, rural aging, and armed conflict situations; creating the front page. In fact, the majority of my time here is spent researching various articles that I find appropriate and interesting contributions to our cause. One of the articles that I particularly identified with was entitled, Niger Delta Elders Declare August 11 Non-Violent Day. It states that the Elders of various groups within the Niger Delta region called for a Non-Violent day. They have created a communiqué to instruct their people to embark on a nation-wide rally to combat violence. This cause really resonates with me, because this is an example of an older person taking it upon himself to make a change in his life. Rather than waiting for a third party to do so, these seniors are taking charge to protect themselves.

I find that GAA’s work is truly laudable and noble. It’s a rare thing, at least to me, that an organization reaches out to the older population of our country. It seems to me that even in the city, where we promote cooperation, teamwork and inclusion, that these are little more than empty words, false promises; the truth being that older people are perpetually being subtly neglected, and reports of elder abuse and fraud are becoming more and more common each day. But fortunately, that’s where GAA steps in, to give voice to seniors’ troubles and achievements. I’m really thankful that GAA has given me the opportunity to help them on their hard mission, and will remember what I’ve learned in my time here for the rest of my life!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ferdous Ara Begum Announces CEDAW’s New Progress

On Monday August 10, 2009, Ferdous Ara Begum, Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee Expert, paid a visit to Global Action on Aging’s office located in New York City. The GAA staff was eager and excited to spend an afternoon hearing about the progress Begum and the CEDAW convention were making across the street at the UN.

Weeks earlier, on July 21st, the GAA staff and interns were able to see Begum in action during the CEDAW session at the UN (
Key Issues and Recommendations). During the session Begum announced a proposal for a general recommendation (Concept Note) to be adopted by all countries that have ratified CEDAW to strengthen the rights of older women at both national and international levels. Since the last UN session, Begum reports optimistic news for CEDAW and older women around the world. Be sure to watch the clip of Begum announcing CEDAW’s newest progress during the afternoon meeting with GAA.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Older Persons in Lebanon

Lebanon is a country of contradictions. In fact, ask anyone from the city of Beirut to describe it, and they will tell you with pride that on a few days every year, you can go skiing and swimming in the same day. Mountains surround the Mediterranean along the coast, creating a dramatic contrast that provides a tangible manifestation of the various contradictions found throughout the country. Civil War plagued Beirut for 15 years, and the country (as I’m sure anyone who reads the news would recall) constantly faces moments of political unrest and upheaval. But driving down the streets, seeing people go to the beaches, shops, or nightclubs, you would never guess such a thing to be the case. A similar tension exists between the growing conservatism in many pockets of the Middle East, and the complete laissez faire, anything-goes, attitude exhibited by the younger generations.

All of this is what surprised me the most when I first took off to Lebanon to work in a refugee camp just on the outskirts of the capital city, Beirut. Sitting in the terminal of Heathrow Airport in London, waiting to board the flight to Beirut, I noticed women sitting across from me wearing the most fashionable skinniest jeans, high heels, and tank tops while right next to them sat others wearing the hijab (veil), exhibiting the modest dress of a more conservative individual. Before even setting foot in the country, I was already face to face with the contradictions that represent it.

Similar tensions can be found on the drive I take to get to the refugee camp everyday, where my project is based. Within three minutes of leaving the city, full of Range Rovers, designer boutiques and nice restaurants, you witness conditions worse than the most squalid project housing in America. Windowless buildings piled on top of one another, tangled electricity wires that don’t even work much of the time, and beat up cars that shock by the fact that they still run, provide a striking contrast for the viewer.

So, how does all of this relate to older people? As I said, Lebanon is a country of contrasts, juxtapositions between rich and poor, mountains and sea, conservatism and liberalism, and while such dichotomies can be incredible (as with the landscape) and certainly unique, they can also be detrimental. The most pronounced of the contradictions found here seems to pervade all of the others. In fact, it can be found in almost every aspect of life in this country. That is the tension between modernity and tradition, and nowhere is this tension more evident than in the status of older people. The changing family structure represents the largest social change taking place in the Middle East. People are no longer all staying in the same town. Many go abroad; many don’t get married or have child after child in order to perpetuate the family legacy. Unfortunately, these changes place a large burden on older people. In the past, it was understood that kids took care of their parents. Older people received attention and aid from their children. It was an unspoken agreement. Today, while the agreement has been largely broken, it remains unspoken.

My grandmother lives in an apartment by herself, as all of her children live abroad either in Europe or the United States. An 80 year-old who can still drive on the deadly chaotic streets of Beirut, she represents an exceptional case. However, even she has difficulties. She has to navigate life in an incredibly busy city with no one to help her both with the menial everyday tasks and more importantly, with enforcing her individual rights. If she is having difficulty with her landlord, something I have witnessed more than once. He tries to intimidate her and there is not much she can do about it because she is unaware of her rights. If she needs to travel a long distance, she has to find a driver. However, she does not trust just anyone. Afraid that a random driver would take advantage of her age or her frailty, she only wants a driver she already knows and can vouch for. This proves a problem because the only person who fits this description is also an octogenarian who is unable to work all day everyday. So my grandmother cannot always get where she needs to be. In these instances and others like them, I have noticed that there are no social provisions or serious legal ramifications to serve as a safety net for elder rights abuse, and the traditional safety provided by family no longer exists for so many people like my grandmother.

She has four sisters, three older and one younger, who also face similar problems in their everyday life It has been very enlightening, though sometimes disheartening, to spend time with them. An older sister clearly suffers from some sort of memory loss. She does not recognize me, although we have been acquainted for some time. She gets confused, and thinks I am my mother, until she is reminded who I am with a laugh by one of her sisters, only to forget again moments later. Every time she forgets anything, one of her sisters will act as though she is just being silly, and subtly point out the mistake or recollection, as though she is simply one of those absent-minded people who has just misplaced her keys. After seeing this process occur over and over again, I realized that they were all in denial. No one was acknowledging that she has a more serious, graver problem. When I asked my grandmother about this, she brushed off my concerns, saying her sister was just “tired.” In the Middle East, particularly among older and more traditional generations, the word “tired” is a euphemism for everything from the common cold to lung cancer. One does not talk about illnesses and everyone who is suffering from one is just “tired.” I constantly find myself wanting to scream, “Really? Then why can’t you cure it with a double espresso??” Mental health issues are particularly stigmatized in this society, but with modern medicine available, even as treatments for dementia or Alzheimer’s, older people need to be made aware of their options This can only happen if they are willing to talk about it.

It is not just mental health issues that older people do not want to acknowledge. They also, more than anyone else, fail to openly recognize the social changes occurring all around them. This denial creates an interesting socioeconomic breakdown of issues facing older people here. From what I have witnessed, the city of Beirut is where the most changes are happening. However, many of the older people here have money and the physical means of accessing better health care and aid should they need it, even thought family/social support does not exist to a large extent for them. On the other hand, people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to gravitate more toward tradition. While they are worse off physically, living in difficult conditions (particularly in the camp where access to health care and even facilities such as elevators and wheelchairs that help vulnerable populations are virtually nonexistent) the family structure remains intact. People there receive attention and help from within their social networks.

In other words, older people in the city, like my grandmother, suffer more from problems related to the changing family structure. Although their quality of life at large may be much higher, they are not necessarily happier or better off in terms of social integration than older people in the camp. This, for me, is an interesting paradox. With economic and social progress come changes that benefit many. However, older people are not necessarily gaining from these changes. In fact, in some cases, as a group, they are losing. As I said, Lebanon is a country of contradictions, and unfortunately, though we’d like to pretend that a double latte could cure everything, the reality is just not that simple.

By Marya Hannun, for Global Action on Aging