Cuba’s Elderly: Protecting the Last Leaf

Verónica Vega

The Last LeafHAVANA TIMES — In a short story by the American author O. Henry, ingenuity, art and (most importantly) love save the life of a young woman who suffers from pneumonia, exacerbated by an even more serious condition: tedium.

In The Last Leaf, the ill person, who would look out the hospital window from her bed and see how the winter winds stripped the leaves off an old climbing plant, became obsessed with the idea that her life would end when the creeper’s last leaf fell. A friend secretly painted a leaf on the wall where the vine crept, which remained unchanged in the midst of the winds and made the young woman react.

Whenever the temperature starts to fall, I think about how unfit homes in Cuba are to withstand the intense cold, about how expensive blankets are, about how malnourished people are and how vulnerable their lungs must be.

Photo: Juan Suarez

I think about that sinister winter that cut down the lives of many elderly patients in Mazorra, Havana’s psychiatric hospital, and about everyone without the strength needed to confront lovelessness and weariness. I think about those for whom no one will paint a leaf, a symbol of hope, anywhere.

My mother died from a sudden case of pneumonia some days ago, so I know how time can weigh down on one and how accumulated obstacles and disenchantments can aggravate any illness. Physical pain becomes a mental substance, immune to pills or palliatives.

There is talk of how Cuba’s population is aging, about the endless exodus of Cubans, about the ludicrous pensions people are paid and the deplorable state nursing homes are in – but no one mentions the psychological impact that this current state of affairs, where the pace of life is set by the need to survive, has on the country’s most vulnerable sector.

I am referring to those who cannot run after a bus that missed its stop, endure the trouble of having to wait somewhere standing or a long fast, those who cannot walk to a polyclinic, no matter how close by it is, and rely on an unavailable wheelchair, a doctor’s visit or an ambulance.

The helplessness of the elderly in Cuba is a serious issue that cannot be captured by the irony of a headline, dramatic photographs, heated debates or the anonymity of statistics. The not-so-distant example of Mazorra reveals how short-lived the repercussions of a tragedy can be.

Class differences in the population are growing every day. These reactivate subtle forms of frustration, inferiority complexes, feelings of humiliation. I saw a store employee contemptuously inspect a bill, given her by an old man of humble appearance and trembling hands. My bill was identical and she didn’t inspect it.

Homeless. Photo: Juan Suarez

I’ve seen an old man in a bus anxiously trying to make his way to the back door, well before his stop, afraid he would not get there in time, what with the throng of people and his inability to force his way through. I’ve seen a blind man walking down the edge of a road in Alamar, avoiding a ragged stretch of sidewalk, almost get run over by a car.

I wonder why grassroots organizations – which have proven their worth not only in political affairs but also in organizing preventive measures during natural disasters – do not take action to conduct a census and protect the elderly, who are the most neglected by our current public health system. I wonder why they do nothing to help the disabled, alcoholics, those who waste away in poverty and/or despair.

What “New Man” could a system that values ideology over compassion hope to create? Solidarity is something inherent to human beings, no matter how hard it may be for us to find it in these times of economic – and spiritual – crisis.

All projects for a future Cuba, absolutely all of them, should include concern over other the wellbeing of others as a premise, without the mediation of any law, any instruction from “above” or meddling by the bureaucracy.

Veronica Vega

Veronica Vega: I believe that truth has power and the word can and should be an extension of the truth. I think that is also the role of Art and the media. I consider myself an artist, but above all, a seeker and defender of the Truth as an essential element of what sustains human existence and consciousness. I believe that Cuba can and must change and that websites like Havana Times contribute to that necessary change.

4 thoughts on “Cuba’s Elderly: Protecting the Last Leaf

  • Veronica, hold your head up and remember the good times There had to have been several My Madre is also with the ancestors buried in Matanzas I will return home soon and give my propers Chin up its all good

  • I am sorry for the loss of your mother, Veronica.
    Your story reminds me of a similar one written by Tchekov, or Gorky, or perhaps another Russian…something about a dying man’s dread that if he discovers a ” secret word” he will die. (He does, with expected results. Also this story is about the relentless shrinking of his world as his illness advances.) Has anyone here come across that story? Of course one of the best such stories is Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan IIych.”
    Whether in Cuba, or here, or elsewhere, I have faith most humans will act with compassion and empathy when the opportunity presents itself. Who knows why one person acts with compassion and another is clueless–or worse yet, heartless? I have known parents who themselves are saints, yet whose offspring are cruel (and ditto the other way around)! All we can do is act in an exemplary manner ourselves. We have little control over the actions of others.
    During a recent trip to Cuba, for example, a young man insisted I take his seat–I am getting rather tottery–on the bus going into the center of Sancti Spritus. Fortunately, an ancient woman got on the bus shortly after, and I gave up my seat to her. I have seen such acts of kindness from one end of Cuba to another, and they far outnumber those acts of insentitivity and cruelty that I have witnessed.

  • I am so sorry for your loss, Verónica. You have written another beautiful and thoughtful piece.

  • Antes de todo, my sincerest condolences for your loss. After a lifetime of service to the revolution, my wife’s grandfather receives a pension of 9 cuc per month. The cost of his life-saving medication in Cuba, when it is available and if he were to buy it himself, is 5 cuc (about 100 Cuban pesos) for a monthly dose. My wife sends a monthly care package to her folks which includes her grandfather’s medication. But for our help, he would likely have to go without this medicine as it is often unavailable in Cuban pharmacies. His story is far from unique among the elderly and yet it is the elderly who have sacrifice the most for the Castros.

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