By Alfredo Prieto
The aging of the Cuban population is an established fact. According to demographers, 15.8% of the population is now over 60, a percentage that is expected to increase dramatically over the next decades.
This data represents both an achievement and a paradox. The elevated life expectancy is fully comparable to any First World country – around 77 years, although the figure is somewhat higher for women. This is a direct result of historical policies whose impact is highly visible now. However, the statistic has been accompanied by a dramatic decline in the birth rate.
Today’s Cuban women almost never give birth; not for the same reasons as Europeans, but as a result of the economic situation whose end is not in sight despite the data on annual growth, now tarnished by the effects of the world crisis and the three hurricanes that battered the country this last year.
But these statistics aren’t just Kantian doves. This is the island of white hairs and the sensation of aging has become nearly omnipresent. In any social event, you need only stand at the back of the room to note the overabundance of bald heads, excesses of rouge and mechanical artifacts of all kinds designed to prop up a body whose extremities can no longer sustain it all by themselves.
For some time now, the Circulos de Abuelos [Senior Centers] have multiplied at an ever more accelerated pace, as well as increasing their public presence. Their members can be seen doing Tai Chi exercises in the park, amid an urban landscape that appears to accompany them in their pilgrimage towards that voyage with no return.
In Old Havana, in Cerro and in Centro Havana, three of the municipalities that date back the farthest, the dwellings languish for lack of attention. Collapses are not unusual after the rains, with the consequent internment of their residents into provisional shelters, which always lasts more than one would desire.
The garbage – waste products of the urban body – accumulates on every corner with the inevitable risk of illnesses; the streets often have salideros, open streams of sewage that put at risk the health of the population in a country where the State dedicates substantial resources to health care.
But there are no statistics measuring the emotional and psychological toll on the family. Cubans compensate those who once upon a time brought them into the world by offering them scrupulous attention. They consider it highly inelegant to send them off to institutions or old age homes – a practice which is common in the United States, as happened to my now deceased aunt Flora in Miami.
Nonetheless, one of the consequences of this altruistic and humane attitude is an elevation in the levels of stress within the family nucleus. This is especially true when trying to find alternatives for an elder who doesn’t want to listen to advice or even to doctor’s orders, and who insists on doing things their own way despite what the doctors and the sons and daughters think and agree on, coinciding in this case with the writer Jorge Luis Borges, for whom democracy was nothing more than the abuse of statistics.
Perhaps the root of that stubbornness can be found in our Hispanic roots, as a song from my early childhood summed it up: “I am as I am, and not as you want me to be.” On the other hand, in a culture where negotiation and careful consideration of outside criteria are not exactly the order of the day, such conflicts frequently provoke frightening levels of verbal violence in the heart of the family, even though things mostly don’t go beyond that.
Divorce or the separation of a couple is not uncommon occurrences. Meanwhile, the elderly tend to contemplate the scene of crisis from a distance and with a spirit of “leave me out of this.” After all, the order established in their homes has served them well during an entire lifetime and they see no need to change customs, practices and styles, despite great efforts to try and persuade them otherwise.
More than a year ago I was admitted to a Cuban hospital for two pains, one of them an inguinal hernia. “Old people are old people, and no one can change them. You take them or you leave them,” my doctor told me one day, upon finding out that an elderly man had gotten out of bed and gone out into the corridor to smoke, despite the fact that he had a heart condition and had been prohibited to do so.