HAVANA TIMES — Nearly 20 percent of Cubans are over 60 years old and, in the very near future, a third of the island’s inhabitants will be senior citizens. The last population census has laid one of Cuba’s most complex problems on the table.
“Society has to prepare for old age,” Vice-President Marino Murillo told deputies this past December, adding that this trend “is unavoidable. It’s going to happen and we can’t do anything to change it in the short term.”
The situation has reached such an extreme that, today, there are more elderly people than children and teenagers in the country. This trend is owed to a reduced birthrate, an increase in life expectancy and, to a lesser extent, the emigration of young people.
One of the more complex challenges that such an aged society faces is the care of the elderly. The extension of life expectancy has created situations where you find elderly people having to care for their parents, who are nearly a hundred years old.
In economic terms, this means that the number of retired persons increases every year and the number of working-age citizens drops. The government is refurbishing retirement and old people’s homes but, ultimately, capacities are well beneath even current needs.
The Parents of the Elderly
Now 97 years old, Margarita Roca has some trouble walking but keeps a very clear head. Freshly-bathed, she is sitting on an armchair, having her lunch under the attentive gaze of her younger son, Raul Arias, a 71-year-old man who looks after her.
Such a scenario will become more and more common as life expectancy, today estimated at around 78 for men and 80 for women, continues to rise. Different factors contribute to this trend, but the country’s wide health coverage is key.
Margot – as she asks us to call her – laughs and tells us that the main difficulty at home is that she’s “very silly”. She adds that she’s now behaving, that she eats at supper time and has her baths without grumbling about it. Shoe does argue with her son, but only so the he will let her do things around the house.
Raul faces far greater difficulties than that, however. “We live on two pensions that aren’t enough. I’ve had to quit work to be able to take care of her and all prices are sky-high. I barely have enough to buy her milk, for example.”
“We each have a 200-peso (US $ 8.00) pension each,” Raul tells us, saying that isn’t enough to make ends meet. “We spend it all paying for electricity, the gas cylinder, water, the newspaper and phone bill. Luckily, my kids help me get through the month.”
Services for the Elderly: Good but Too Few
Cuba has a number of interesting projects for the elderly, such as the University for Senior Citizens, where pensioners can study, Tai Chi exercise sessions and the Casas del Abuelo (“Grandparent Homes”), where the elderly can spend the day while their sons and daughters work.
These centers are aimed at aiding families. There, senior citizens can meet people their age, do exercises, eat and play games. Though these services are free of charge, there only 230 such homes, whose capacity does not even cover a third of society’s needs.
Old people’s homes also offer free services, but there are a mere 127 such homes in the whole country, with a total of 9,000 beds. The government plans on building 13 new homes and 140 new Casas del Abuelo before 2015, but that still isn’t enough for a country with over 2 million senior citizens.
Elizardo Sanpedro, an employee at the Santovenia home, an institution managed by the Catholic Church and Cuban Ministry of Public Health, tells BBC World that they care for 450 residents, feed an additional 150 elderly people and have an immense waiting list.
“Many elderly people want to come here” because “this is the best home. The rest are in a deplorable state,” Sanpedro tell us, adding there isn’t much corruption at the home. “The nuns give the residents everything that’s sent to them, they keep nothing.”
Alberto Fernandez, head of the Senior Citizen Services Department of the Ministry of Public Health, explained that Cuba is the only country in Latin America where people over 60 (18.3 % of the population) are more numerous than those belonging to the 0-14 age group (17.3 %). This leaves Cuba without a generational replacement.
In addition to increased life expectancy, low natality indices (Cuban women have an average of 1.69 children) have a say in this. The reasons for this are varied, but economic difficulties, the integration of women into the workforce and, most particularly, housing shortages are among the most significant.
The large numbers of young people currently leaving the country may have a say in this also. The migratory privileges Cubans enjoy in the United States, however, also prompt many elderly to emigrate. According to Colonel Lamberto Fraga, in 2013, the greatest number of travelers were between the ages of 40 and 60.
Cuba is still not ready to care for such an aged population. In most cities, architectural barriers abound, pensions are insufficient, public transportation is inadequate, nursing homes are few and far between and other institutions for the elderly have very reduced capacities. Addressing this reality in one of the country’s greatest challenges.
(*) An HT translation of the original published (in Spanish) by BBC Mundo.