Living a Dignified Life as a Senior in Cuba

File photo by Juan Suarez

By Ivett de las Mercedes

HAVANA TIMES – Alfredo Hernandez is an unstoppable elderly man. He is 89 years old and he continues to teach everyone a life lesson. He has gone out during the COVID-19 outbreak, like he always has, to buy food, even though he isn’t living alone. He prefers to be out on the street than locked up at home without seeing people.

Every time we run into each other, we talk about lots of different things, and today, he has agreed to share his opinions with HT readers. On one condition, he doesn’t want to show his face, but he asks me to tell you that it isn’t out of vanity, but because he is shy.

HT: What do you do to keep in such good shape?

Alfredo Hernandez: My father worked right up until the last day of his life. He was a hardcore farmer, with leathery skin, beaten by the rain and sun. He came to Havana because he wanted me to study. The house where we settled was in Marianao and had a plot of land behind it, which he toiled up until he was 95, without complaining. His fortitude is my inspiration. I have transmitted this life lesson to my children, and now to my grandchildren. Feeling useful, not to be accepted by family members, but for yourself, is key to living your senior years with some dignity. 

HT: Do you believe that the ability to face the senior years is a process influenced by a genetic predisposition?

AH: Well, I wouldn’t know how to answer that question, but there are many factors that need to be taken account when talking about dealing with aging. Having a good example at home is a factor to bear in mind, of course. I believe that preparing for the later years begins somewhat subconsciously when you are a teenager. I wasn’t a show-off when I was younger, nor did I look at myself in the mirror very much. I liked to be clean and wear neat, ironed clothes. I wasn’t very interested in fashion.  I always knew that my parents worked magic to buy me clothes and shoes.

When I became an adult, things didn’t change. I never really cared about appearances; I would comb my hair and shave like everyone else, but that was it. I’m convinced that these 50 and 60-year-old men, who wear tight clothes as if they were young men and with dyed hair because they are scared of greys, were once young people who spent hours in front of a mirror. They always looked for the approval of others and they suffered, of course. Today, they continue to suffer by not accepting that aging is just as natural as life and death, and that you can live with dignity.

HT: So, looking for approval leads to a suffering that can be fatal?

AH: Of course. If you spent your entire life trying to please others, in living through others, then your body will suffer the consequences. A healthy life in the mind is crucial. If you were an angry, possessive and controlling person, if you would blow up whenever you ran into a problem or obstacle, if your family was your battlefield, then it’s pretty much impossible for you to live a healthy senior time. 

HT: Do you think that old people can live like they have in the past 20 years?

AH: Yes. Most mental disease has to do with your quality of life. A fear of aging is also a determining factor.  We would all like to stretch out our youth. Who doesn’t like walking up straight, remembering everything, being able to keep a conversation, be taken into account when family decisions are being made… but this all depends on us.

If we only focus on losing the vitality in our skin, or the greys that threaten to cover our entire head and the wrinkles that give away our real age, then no matter how much we want to hide it, old age will come anyway. Just the anxiety we would have suffered during the process will make things worse.

HT: I’m sure you believe getting old with a sharp mind is still the best option.

AH: Yes, and it’s sad that not everyone has this clear in their minds. If the time some people spent on plastic surgery, in covering up their grey hair with dyes and their wrinkles with exotic products, was spent instead on accepting their age, our families and society would have a different vision of us.

HT: Do you believe that culture has something to do with this fear of getting old?

AH: Generally-speaking, TV series and soaps broadcast in our country give us the extremes of old age. Not everything is perfect, but we won’t all end up physically and mentally incapacitated either. We aren’t all the living dead, we don’t all live in a hostile environment, just like most of us don’t live in Nuevo Vedado.

It’s good that these poor conditions are being reported, that young people understand that the elderly have a right to live and to be treated properly, but it’s also necessary to show the other side of this reality without any sugarcoating.

People don’t know that there are old people in their 80s and 90s who paint, write, who are excellent musicians and chess players, that they continue to learn, sharing their knowledge with the world of science with thousands of scientists, who keep themselves healthy, who plant and collect fruit from their gardens and vegetable allotments, who do algebra or medicine homework with their grandchildren, who go to university for seniors, and others, like me, who go out and run errands just because they like talking, walking, meeting people and watching life go by.

All of this is regardless of the pension that isn’t enough for us to get by and medicine shortages for age-related disease. I would like people to know that old age is a mental state, that the physical body is just the shell of the mind, and that we can keep it young and healthy, if we know how to keep healthy during the course of our lives.      

2 thoughts on “Living a Dignified Life as a Senior in Cuba

  • The interview with Alfredo Hernandez was extremely elucidating. Here is an aged Cuban gentleman who has some very practical approaches to living a long, healthy life irrespective of one’s geographic location.

    Alfredo states: “I believe that preparing for the later years begins somewhat subconsciously when you are a teenager.” How true that is.

    I am sure Alfredo did not smoke, take drugs, eat junk food, drive everywhere, when he was a teenager. As he states he did a great deal of farm physical work while nourishing his body. Today’s teenagers particularly in Western society are so accustomed to eating at fast food restaurants, having parents drive them everywhere and, to add insult to injury to their bodies, are extremely sedentary adding to all kinds of mental and physical illnesses.

    The amount of diabetes in our youth and adults today is a worldwide tragedy all because of the improper diet digested and sedentary life style. No, teenagers cannot all be hard, physically working farmers, but some simple, moderate daily exercise, like walking, and eating healthy food which is plentiful and inexpensively available helps.

    Further Alfredo says: “A healthy life in the mind is crucial. If you were an angry, possessive and controlling person, if you would blow up whenever you ran into a problem or obstacle, if your family was your battlefield, then it’s pretty much impossible for you to live a healthy senior time.” The ancient practice of Stoicism is basically what he refers. That is a good thing.

    Practicing the stoic concept of knowing that an individual does not have the power to change things that are not changeable and out of one’s control immensely reduces negative emotions like anger and bitterness. Don’t know if Alfredo is a religious person but his wise analysis about controlling negative emotions resulting in a healthy mind is captured in the Christian Serenity Prayer.

    In my visits to Cuba it never ceases to amaze me the amount of older Cuban gentleman sitting in parks or simply on city sidewalks under the shade of a leafy tree playing chess or dominoes for hours on end. The social togetherness coupled with the positive psychological impact such activities do to the wellness of an aging mind are incredible and indisputable. Such types of activities are not seen certainly in Canada, perhaps because of the inclement weather. Rather many seniors are confined to retirement homes with little physical activity and even less mind stimulation but to watch television all day.

    Even with a meager Cuban pension, Alfredo is still able to enjoy his aging self and inspire others to look inward for sustenance (Stoicism) rather than outward (coloring graying hair) for solace.

  • Such an inspirational man! Thank you for the article. ¡Gracias!

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