The Daily Life of the Elderly in Cuba (Part II)

Regina Cano

elderlyHAVANA TIMES — “High prices. Shortages. We have to adapt to the times, “I’m alive only because God wants me to be,” “The problem is loneliness, the problem is food. One has to shoulder a whole lot of problems,” “A 242-peso pension isn’t enough to live on” – such are the comments the first interviewees make in Didier Santos’ and Yaima Pardo’s documentary Al Final del Camino (“At the End of the Road”).

The film gathers the testimonies and thoughts of Cuban pensioners who look back on their last decades of life on the island.

“I’ve given more to the State than the State is giving me at the moment. I’ve worked all of my life. I’m now 83,” another interviewee says. The documentary draws our attention to a social reality we co-exist with but do not know in depth.

Al final del camino also gathers opinions and concerns on the subject from representatives of the institutions who offer services and work with the elderly in Cuba. These officials call for long-term and permanent care for those who require it, “a quality of life as similar to the one [the elderly] once had.” “The elderly are an increasingly broad sector of Cuba’s total population,” we are told.

Details

Before, retiring was synonymous with spending time with one’s grandchildren (while they were still children), enjoying a good baseball game on TV, playing domino with friends at a street corner (an ongoing tradition), going out for a stroll along Havana’s ocean drive, visiting old friends or relatives one didn’t have time to see while working, going to premieres at movie theaters, going camping with the family, and throwing parties (something everyone enjoys).

Many elderly people in Cuba still refuse to join old people circles that exercise outdoors or practice Thai Chi (which is very much in vogue in Cuba today). Some time ago, the elderly themselves baptized such programs as “The Junker Plan.”

Some remain active in their neighborhoods, but others suffer lonely existences, depression and anemia.

Those who live with them are sometimes unable to care for them adequately or even show them a bit of affection.

Many who lost their loved ones – people they lived with or were very close to – now live with their children and grandchildren, people who are immersed in their own daily problems and do not pay attention to them, do not understand them or are disrespectful towards them. Some have children who live very far away or who have left the country.

Others aren’t ill but feel abandoned. They are visited by relatives or acquaintances who treat them in abusive ways or simply do not look after them (and, in many cases, only wish to inherit the house or apartment the elderly person lives in).

Los que habitan solos no tienen medios, ni capacidad física para mantener o reparar sus viviendas -los techos, el mobiliario- así como garantizarse la higiene.

Those who live alone have no means or the physical capacity to maintain or repair their homes or to keep their surroundings clean.

In Old Havana, there are subsidized homes for elderly people who have no means to live on their own, but…what of the rest?

The elderly have a tough time preparing food for themselves, let alone maintaining a healthy diet rich in vegetables. “It’s too expensive!” one of them says. The government’s welfare program offers a series of cafeterias that serve lunch and supper at very low prices, but there are those who regard these places as unhygienic.

A great many elderly people in Cuba spend more money on medication than on food, for afflictions typical of their age: high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes (the top three on the list). One hears old people say “getting old is the worst thing out there,” referring to all of the conditions that begin to afflict you.

Maintenance

The majority of elderly people have no other option other than getting by on a pension which is well beneath the minimum needed to make ends meet.

There are those who don’t even have enough to pay off the debts they accrued when the “Energy Revolution” campaign was implemented and electrical appliances were sold on credit to the population. Others retired on a 70-peso pension and currently receive 200 pesos thanks to the revision of Cuba’s Social Security Law – but even the new pension isn’t enough.

The government argues that it pushed back the country’s official retirement age to reduce the financial impact that paying pensions for long periods of time has on the State. Though it appears the life expectancy is increasing on the island because better healthcare services are being offered the elderly, their vulnerable and unstable social situation is actually making their lives worse at present.

Al final del camino warns us that Cuba may become one of the most aged countries on the planet if this matter isn’t addressed in a timely fashion.

Conclusion

One of the interviewees suggests that society must look on the medical care, proper nutrition, housing, privacy and transportation of the elderly as a first-order priority, and that old people must be given opportunities to interact with other generations.

“We must take on the social commitment of creating a new society with new social relations.”

“The population must be more proactive, it must create, not merely comply with instructions received from above. We must participate more actively in the creation of the policies that affect them. They cannot be the objects of these policies, they must be their agents.”

It is very refreshing to see a film that gathers undreamed-of images of dilapidated, dirty and neglected spaces where old people live, a film that reminds us the elderly “are an important part of society and must be treated with dignity. (…) They do not deserve to be left to their own resources. They deserve a decorous life.”

Regina Cano

Regina Cano: I have lived my entire life in Havana, Cuba – the island from which I’ve still never left, and which I love. I was born on September 9, and my parents chose my name out of superstition, but my mother raised me outside the religion professed by her family. I studied accounting and finance at the University of Havana, a profession that I’m not engaged in for the time being, and that I substituted for doing crafts, some ceramics, and studying a little English and about painting. Ah! – concerning my picture: I identify with Rastafarian principles, but I am not one of them. I wear this cap from time to time, but I assure you I just didn't have a better picture.

3 thoughts on “The Daily Life of the Elderly in Cuba (Part II)

  • April 21, 2014 at 7:39 am
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    The problems facing the elderly in Cuba are common to all societies around the world in varying degrees. The problem is made worse in Cuba because of the Castros policies which limit private support. The failure of the regime is most evident for the generation which sacrificed the most to sustain Fidel’s egomaniacal folly. Worse yet, given the demographic data, as Cuba’s population ages, young people continue leaving the country in droves. The government burden of caring for the ever increasing number of elderly is exacerbated by the pool of working age Cuban’s decreasing. Given the tepid economic reforms of late, the situation will worsen for the foreseeable future.

    Reply
  • April 21, 2014 at 10:18 am
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    Regina Cano, thank you for writing this article. Please tell us more about the film, its distribution in Cuba and the film maker. Also, what reviews and responses has it received in the Cuban press.

    You make excellent points and suggestions. I am a senior semi-retired Social Worker in the US. I have examined and have some first hand knowledge of how the elderly are treated in many areas of the world. How we prepare for our later years is equally important with how we are preparing for all of our future on this planet. As with many in Cuba and the US, the picture is very bleak.

    Each country and peoples have to find the best ways to prepare for their particular local future, even while those of us who have the energy and means, must work to approach these two linked challenges on a world scale.

    I strongly disagree with those who pass off this very social issue as it if is just the responsibility of the particular elderly person or their immediate family. In my observations there are factors that help and those that determine a terrible future. The negatives are obvious in their extreme consequences; poverty, social traumas, great disparity in income and worst of all, a reactionary (both psychological and social) view of life and people. By this I refer not only to those who champion selfishness, greed and hierarchies of human worth, but the fact that we humans are capable of both great anticipation of common need and abject failure to anticipate catastrophic consequences. Examples are in the wealthier societies with a social conscience when they prepare for the actual needs of the elderly while there is time vs the abysmal human reaction to the coming climate catastrophes.

    The elderly are us, that is if we are fortunate enough. Beware those who blame the poor and unfortunate, they are too often among those who secretly benefit from others misfortune and need to justify their guilt.

    There are many hopeful and possible improvements and solutions. We not only need to look for them, but organize now. On these pages, I have suggested some, including possibilities of setting up in Cuba senior service communities serving foreign elders with income that would be integrated with Cuban communities and service. Not separate from either normal communities or Cuban elders, but joined. I assure you there are many such elders around the world who would love to be in such places rather than isolated and further, for now, they have the funds to make it possible. Cuba has the “human resources” just not the financial. Of course the US is currently against such investment, but there are others and it may change.

    Reply
  • April 21, 2014 at 6:59 pm
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    I second Walter’s thanks, Regina! Both your articles and the film which is linked at the end of your article give me much to reflect upon. During the past few years I have had regular contact with two seniors: one, my wife’s aunt, lived in the equivalent of retirement heaven–an assisted living community; the other, a close friend, lives in retirement hell–a nursing home. To me both are depressing, though for different reasons. Of course there is no substitute for living with a loving family, with several generations under one roof, but this is not often possible, especially given the mobile conditions of contemporary urban society. I like the way that both seniors, and those who reallly care about them, are attempting to create new solutions in community and housing. Thanks again, Regina, for your series!

    Reply

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