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Opinions of Friday, 23 May 2008

Columnist: Adu-Gyamfi, Kwaku

The Ghanaian Immigrants’ Retirement Dilemma

To Retire in Ghana or not to retire in Ghana? That’s the question.

But, Can We Count On our Kids for our Survival?

Advice: Think about Ghana when you still have productive time left and factorize your vitality, longevity, mortality and your children’s role in your old -age. But, please try to live life before you die.

ANYTIME I VISITED Ghana, I normally spent some time with an old lady who lived not too far from my compound. I guess she was in her late 90s. Rumor however has it that she was over100. I am compelled to believe the latter version because in her own words she “baby-sat” people who were in their late 80s.

Amazingly, she could easily have passed for her early 80s. Mother Nature treated her with much respect and kindness because she looked younger than her age. She had all her teeth intact. The centenarian had never seen a dentist throughout her life.

I once curiously and jealously asked her specifically, the secret behind her longevity and vitality. She looked at me and with a low voice reeled off a number of things---, “eat well, smile more, have a good heart and keep moving”.

She however complained that she had long lived- outclassing all her friends, sisters and brothers and all who were known to her as colleagues. At her age, she was still working for a living, by helping to gather palm nuts for the neighborhood vendors for a fee.

The centenarian worked till her last day on earth because she had no pension payment. More so, her own family was not capable to provide all the support that the lucky old lady needed from them. Nonetheless, she felt good in the arms of some benevolent persons in the community. The only gift the old lady requested from me was that I should assist in organizing a befitting funeral for her anytime she kicked the bucket. As by fate, the centenarian died a few weeks before I was spared to visit home in December, 2007.

I often think about the life of this lady. And, I wonder whether it’s a blessing to survive life for that long. In fact, the thought of her has occupied the permanent part of my memory and slips into my conversations; every now and then. I guess she made me think of my own vitality and mortality.

To be upbeat of my own future and lighten the day, I once asked a friend how he would like to spend his old age and I deduced it was a topic that he would not like to discuss. The scene was like that of Peter Tosh’s philosophic verse that “everyone wants to go to heaven but none would like to die”. We all would like to avoid death and live longer but none is prepared to talk about how life would be when we get older and weak.

You know, Ghanaians hardly talked about old -age, death and retirement. They’re not topics for discussion. In fact in some communities it is a taboo to discuss death. One is seen as a wizard or a witch if he or she discusses death.

It is becoming increasingly clear that sense of belonging that was characteristic of our “Ghanaianness” is withering out. The present generation does not seem to have much respect for the elderly. The fear is that the next generation will be more hostile to this present generation when it gets older. The case for the Ghanaian immigrant is even more serious and mind bothering----to say the least...

There is the dilemma of either to continue making do with life in the host country or joining folks back home. But even that the sense of living and one’s ability to enjoy the real fruits of old- age will depend on individual’s own established security goals in life.

I have no doubt that most Ghanaians living abroad will prefer to spend their retirement back home in Ghana. A good number of them will like to contribute their quota to homeland; Ghana and their communities. However, the fact is, moving to Ghana is not about achieving all their dreams but making a real difference in the people around them.

I can still in retrospection and evocation remember the good old days where the elderly and aged in the Ghanaian society were pampered and cared for by the society. Just as many Ghanaians who are domicile outside the country, I also envision the strong possibility of spending my old -age in Ghana; away from my kids who have been grossly acculturated into Western life style.

The apprehension however is that can one count on the Ghanaian tradition as he or she aged? The treatment the current generation is giving out to the aged is enough indication that ours will be rougher. Gone are the days when the aged could ride a free bus and train service, enjoyed free medical service at any health institution and were made to feel loved, consulted for wisdom and accepted by the society. Who wants to consult an elderly for an advice when one is a mouse click away or can get help by texting his or her friends in Timbuktu?

A friend I recently met at a Ghanaian gathering here in the States wanted to know whether children, who were raised in the West would care for the welfare of their parents or even bother to visit frequently if their parents dare to spend their retirement period in Ghana. Would they have the sense of urgency and the commitment to send financial support to their parents as he does for his parents living in Ghana?

These and other philosophical questions kept popping in the minds of many Ghanaian immigrants, as they ponder on their plans to move home. I believe these are precisely the questions every first generation Ghanaian Immigrant should be asking and is struggling to answer.

Those who have not yet thought of these issues should better start now. And, especially, those who made the choice to raise their children in the Western world will have to embrace the notion of spending their old age alone—without their children, who are living abroad and possibly the grandchildren they are not likely to see.

Even in Ghana, where family ties are much stronger than the West, the possibility of a booming economy is likely going to change the old-age social dynamics that we know. Children would be moving away for jobs leaving their elderly parents on their own—in the village to fend for themselves. No one can guarantee the fact that these children would support their parents.

Undoubtedly, tomorrow’s generational needs can hardly fit into the agenda of the today’s generation. The present generation is so inward looking and selfish such that one can bet the worst awaits our generation when it gets old. It would be worse because unlike our generation that saw some aspects of the good old days; the next generation will virtually have nothing to admire about old age as such it will care very less if not giving the aged a quick-match into their graves so as to enjoy the “booty” .

My reluctant to be hopeful was also fueled by the emergence of a new evolving culture in Ghana. A cultural revolution which is unfolding in Ghana is led by a small number of well-to-do Ghanaians and Ghanaian immigrants, who are returning home. They are likely to change what it means to be old and what it means to be family member. They have the means to live comfortably and independently away from their kids and the extended -families.

While some lament the” break down” in the family as a sign of decline in our cultural values, the well-off and those who planned well for their old –age see it differently. They’re happy to devote their old -age to themselves, instead of their grandchildren and being a burden to their children.

Come to think of it, I like the thought of being independent. I love the freedom to travel and pursue my hobbies in the later part of my life. I also like the thought of spending time with folks I grew up with. At least, that will give me the chance to develop very strong social ties ---which are not very common in the West because of the “rat- race” life style.

It has been proven by social scientists that our social ties determine mortality. That those who lack social connections are nearly 3 times more likely to die of all causes during old- age than those with a lot of contacts. Perhaps, social network plays a role in one’s life, especially in old age and dementia.

But, it’s not known for sure if socializing makes one mentally healthy or otherwise. Since social networking can prolong life maybe that explains why that old lady lived that long, despite her financial situation. It is also an indication that those who are likely to spend their old-age in a place where they can spend time with loved ones and old friends will live longer.

As a tradition, caring for our parents---, especially the elderly –-is a duty and equally important as caring for one’s children. Home after home across the country is filled with the same mix generations. But given the new socio-economic situation which is emerging, how long will that ‘joint-family’ system last?

This cultural arrangement is borne out of custom and financial necessity .The Ghanaian government doesn’t provide a social security type of benefits we have in the West. Less than 10 percent of the elderly population receives even a small pension benefits. Therefore their main source of pension is their kids.

But, how far will this dependency arrangement go? Not too long! The younger generation back home is speeding up and getting very westernized, just like the kids brought up in the west. They want Ipod, smart- phones, GPS, and all the modern-day trimmings that their incomes cannot even support. They’re ‘financially promiscuous’---they buy every gizmo with more bells and whistles and have put themselves in financial straight –jacket before they graduate from college.

The young generation in Ghana, as in the West is very busy and doesn’t have time to spend with old people, so it is not a surprise that the strong family bonding system which was bequeathed to us is gradually disintegrating. It is evident that the current generation is going to be disappointed if it doesn’t lower its expectations and aspirations Vis- a -Vis support from its children. It’s a fact; we can’t count on them for our survival.

Yes, we’re going to miss the family bonding, the security of comfort, the love and the shelter. After all, who wouldn’t want to be with his or her own children and family as long as it is possible? But, I surely don’t want to spend my old -age helping with grand kids and household chores and being boss around---instead of playing cards, taking music lessons, reading and writing under a mango tree, walking on the country road, playing instruments and engaging in my hobbies—the activities all but unthinkable in generation past.

Having lived in the U.S this long, ---knock on wood—I think I can make it in Ghana. The comfort and the money in our host countries are great, but at what price? We work hard to pay the bills and what we get at the end is the grave!

Most of us who will choose to spend the old-age here will live without the kids and God forbids if you got struck by terminal illness you will end up in what they called “nursing home”. Yes, your ‘family’ will literally dump you there to enable it have its peace of mind.

At least, in Ghana I don’t have to be super- rich to get help to buy groceries, do the laundry, clean the house, run to the store and thousand other chores around the house.

Moving- to- Ghana, once a pastime topic has blossomed into a full-blown personal obsession. I can’t wait to go home. But, I’m not counting on my Ipod driven–children to chip in for my old -age because I want to be totally independent and live life before I die.

Amazingly, I’m not as depressed as you think I should when I talk or think about moving to Ghana. But, I’m Sorry to disappoint you!

Sometimes, life has such a sweet touch of irony; it is hard not to chuckle. The thought of moving home and having time to do personal things makes me very hopeful and anxious than despair. There will be so much joy when I move home that it will be picked up on the Richter scale.

If I had a chance to spend more years on this planet I’d grab as much life as I can in Ghana, instead of on foreign soil.

The future looks very promising as long as it is well planned. I’m not leaving any stone unturned. So therefore the answer to the topic-question will be moving to Ghana can be a blessing; if one plans well for it and doesn’t expect too much from his/her kids . It isn’t gloom and doom because you will be able to send postcards from “exotic locations” in Ghana to your friends around the world who couldn’t make it onto the “Promised Land”.

Kwaku Adu-Gyamfi NJ, USA

* The author is a social commentator, the founder of Adu-Gyamfi Youth Empowerment, Educational and Apprenticeship Foundation for the youth of Asuom, E/R.