Accept the word of elderly Caribbean women when they complain about a difficulty in finding an eligible intimate partner with whom they can settle into a comfortable long-term relationship.
That’s because there are many more women than men over the age of 60 years in most countries, be they in Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia or Guyana. It’s a situation that demographers say was heightening competition among women seeking male companionship.
According to a new United Nations report on global aging, the Caribbean island-nations and coastal states, especially those in the English-speaking have some of the world’s lowest rates of unmarried women who are 60 years and over. At the same time the sex ratio –men per 100 women in 2012 – presents a serious challenge for elderly women. It shows, for instance, that Trinidad and Tobago has one of the widest gender gaps to be found anywhere, whether in rich, middle income or poor countries. Specifically, there were only 68 men for every 100 women in Trinidad and Tobago, one of the world’s lowest ratios, while in Barbados, Grenada, and Martinique the gap was 75 men to 100 women. In the Bahamas, Aruba, St. Lucia and the Netherland Antilles, the picture was slightly better with 77 per 100 women. Jamaican women were more fortunate as their country had a gap of 88 men to 100 women, Haiti, 84; and St. Vincent & the Grenadines 87. The ratio of men to women in Canada was 85 and in the United States it was 80.
Interestingly, Cuba with 90 and the Dominican Republic with 96 came closest to equality among the sexes.
Looked at one way, men in Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and Barbados men had more opportunities to play the field than say Jamaicans, Haitians or Cubans. But women who had passed 60 were in for some challenging times when they sought intimate male companionship in their age group.
The UNFPA report, “Ageing in the Twenty First Century, a Celebration and a Challenge,” was prepared with the assistance of Help/Age International and the figures indicated that the shortage of men in the Caribbean was hitting women in several countries quite hard indeed. For example, only 30 per cent of Grenadian women who were 60-plus were “currently married;” French Guiana 29 per cent and only 32 per cent of the females in Suriname were “married”. In Barbados it was 33 per cent. The regional average of married women in the Caribbean was 41 per cent while in Latin America and the Caribbean it was 42 per cent. The percentage of unmarried American women in their 60s was 48 per cent; in Canada 50; Guyana 35 per cent; Jamaica 36; Trinidad and Tobago 37 per cent; Cuba and Puerto Rico 44 per cent; and St. Lucia 44 per cent.
A possible explanation for the vexing shortage, say demographers and health experts was the fact that women were living longer than men. After reaching the 60 year threshold, women in several Caribbean countries can expect to live anywhere between 22 to 26 years while the average for men ranged between 18- 22 years.
The report indicated there were 303,000 people in the 60-plus bracket in Jamaica, compared with 152,000 in Trinidad and Tobago; 688,000 in Haiti; almost one million in the Dominican Republic, two million in Cuba; 691, 000 in Puerto Rico; but only 47,000 men and women in Barbados; the U.S. Virgin Islands 25,000 and 11,000 in St. Vincent.
George Griffith, who heads the Barbados Family Planning Association and follows demographic trends in the Caribbean, said that the profile of the island-nations as contained in the report raised some “interesting issues,” such as the definition of marriage, given the “prevalence of common-law relationships” in the region and the negative impact of non-communicable diseases on men, who were dying in greater numbers than women from diabetes, hypertension, cancer, stroke and heart disease.
“Because a woman may not be married after the death of a spouse, it doesn’t mean she is not in a sexual relationship, not at all. We have quite a lot of common-law marriages,” said Griffith. “It may explain the practice of older men and women finding younger sexual partners. We must also look at the impact of the gaps among the 60-plus on the incidence of HIV/AIDS which indicated that more and more men were turning to younger women for unprotected sex and end up becoming infected. This emphasizes the importance of HIV/AIDS education. What’s clear is that women are looking after their health and therefore are living longer while far too many men neglect doing the same and are therefore dying much earlier than their spouses.”
A senior UN official familiar with the Caribbean’s aging profile agreed with Griffith’s analysis, saying the figures “offer an explanation for the growing incidence of HIV/AIDS among men over 60 years “because many of the men are turning to younger women for sex.” Just as important, she added, it “also explains why so many elderly women were seeking younger men as sex partners or are having intimate relationships with married men.”
As if that wasn’t enough, the official who requested anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak on the report said it tells a story about why more women were staying with cheating husbands, fearing that if they sought a divorce they could end up living alone “at a time when their hormones are still racing.”
Reacting to the report, Jessica Odle-Baril, once a member of the Inter-American Commission on Women, said that “expressions like un-evenly yoked, lack of commitment, financial stability and not settling for less, could contribute to why women over 60 are single, whether unmarried, widowed or divorced.”