Cuba: Island of White Hairs

By Alfredo Prieto

This is the island of white hairs and the sensation of aging has become nearly omnipresent. Photo: Caridad
This is the island of white hairs and the sensation of aging has become nearly omnipresent. Photo: Caridad

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.

4 thoughts on “<em>Cuba: Island of White Hairs</em>

  • Dear Mr. Prieto,
    I know the Roosevelt Hotel well.My great aunt lived there for many yrs,and I visited there many times in my childhood ,what a great neighborhood it was.Enjoyed your article.

  • The comment about houses reaching the point of no return and following some of their elder inhabitants down to dim Dis made me smile–and cry, too! Although a start has been made in Habana Vieja in preserving Havana’s patrimony, there is a veritable ocean of other neighborhoods with homes and commercial buildings which also deserve preservation. The Roosevelt Hotel, corner of Amistad y San Miguel, in Centro, where I stayed for $3/night during the Summer of 1959, is just such a building which has no reached the point of no return. Too bad an army of preservationists–and construction workers–couldn’t be trained, then put to work, in preserving Centro, Cerro, Jesus Maria, and a host of other neighborhoods. I know…lack of resources! These buildings are precious. The same process of decay and destruction goes on up here, too. In the 1960’s and 1970’s I saw whole neighborhoods in Boston (Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roxbury) gradually fall into decay. When they were constructed, in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, these were the homes of the upper middle class, even the wealthy, and were built by craftsman who not only knew their craft, but often went beyond to create works of art. Now they are mostly gone. This is the way (not only of) of all flesh, but apparently of brick and mortar too. What was it that Gibbon said, in the 18th Century, while sitting in what once was the Roman Forum, as sheppards hearded their flocks through the weeds and rubble? I forget his exact comments, but it makes me wonder what Habana will look like in a millenia?

  • Thanks Alfred:

    Great article.

    i am also one with a few white hairs..Una Senora AfroCuban and visiting as we speak.
    At 63 i have worn well, as have those in my family. Perhaps because for the most part, there are no children younger than seven yrs, not to say that there will be no births but because of choice. Anyways, i have 7 sons and one daughter all born after the revolution and none in Cuba.

    Suffice, and you can bet on it..This will change soon..There will be more babies being born and i hope to be here to usher a few into the world as native born Cubans.
    On the other side, i am glad that there are so many older Cubans still alive and living here. i am glad for many reasons not to say anything about what they have to offer younger generations.

    In my home as a child before the revolution i remembered having grandparents on both sides as well as one great grand.
    I remember how we were taught from the beginning that Abuela, y abuelo would never live alone when they could not do so and that when that time came one or two of the sons and daughters would be requireed attend to thier every need.
    back then it was a shame and a sadness to not do so..our very salvation depended upon this and we rose to the occassion.

    My father was a musician from Cuba and a freedom fighter with Fidel, and when he passed away in 2007 he was on the road in canada but lived amongst all of us..We never ever, considered kicking him or any of the eldres to the curb..It was an honer to honor those who helped to make me who i have become..

    And an apology is offered to a writer here who i called a story teller a few days ago when he spoke of the garbage…i saw it yesterday and was ..blackfaced.. i had noit seen any such in previous visits but i giess denial may have stood in my way …The author will know whom i speak..

    Perdona me

  • Alfredo Prieto
    Thanks for your article. I am a very happy man. I am 80+. I would fit in, because I have lots of white hair.
    I am fortunate I have no physical problems. I work out rigorously for an hour twice a week, and I am learning Spanish to exercise mi cerebro.


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