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Senior Moments from H.O.M.E.

What my vacation taught me about seniors in Cuba

Posted by Bruce Otto on Feb 23, 2015 2:44:44 PM

My wife Kerry and I visited Cuba last month as part of a people-to-people exchange that was intended to build a cultural exchange and better understanding between Cubans and people from the USA. The tour was sponsored by TunisUSA.

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Culture in Cuba

I think we had the normal first impressions. Old U.S. made cars are everywhere. They are used as taxis and by private individuals. Some are in pristine condition and some look really bad—l wondered how they were still running but compared to the much maligned Lada, (the white car in the photo above), they are like a limo. Our guide asked us if we knew what they call a Lada at the top of a hill--a miracle!

Then there was the music. Every restaurant had live music and we visited several Culture of Community Centers where children and young people were instructed in the arts. We heard amazing vocalists, saw young girls doing ballet and teenagers learning to dance and sing. All the training and instruction was free.

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Live music is everywhere

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Seniors in Cuba

Because of my interest in the elderly I tried to learn about living conditions and issues facing seniors, and since I’ve returned I did a little more research.

In Cuba, probably close to 90 percent of the elderly live with or close to their families. In fact, if there is any family at all, the family members must be responsible for and take care of their elderly. In Cuba, there is widespread opposition to permanently housing the elderly in retirement homes, something that is only done in extreme cases.

In the capital, home to more than two million people, repairs are urgently needed for sidewalks and streets to prevent falls. The city needs to find solutions to provide more access for older adults. The poor state of elevators in most of the city’s multi-story buildings is a big problem.

“I live alone on the tenth floor, and the elevator is always broken. Sometimes weeks go by before I can come downstairs,” said Aurelia García, who lives in Old Havana. She said that whenever she can, she spends the day at a Casa de los Abuelos  (grandparents houses). These Casa's are much like the Senior Centers operated by the City of Chicago.

Casas’ function is primarily to provide a social setting so that elders who so often feel isolated can meet others and share activities. They are given breakfast, a midday snack, and lunch. They often have some kind of arts and crafts, story-telling, book sharing, and some level of exercise. The actual activities during the course of the day depend very much on the number of attendees, the range of their interests and the health of the attendees. This too is completely free.

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The future of aging in Cuba

A U.N. study shows Cuba's population is aging even faster than that of China, which has forbidden couples to have more than one child. Cuba's rate would be typical in a wealthy European nation. But Cuba lacks the wealth to cope with it.

The trend is accelerating, with the number of seniors projected to nearly double to 3.6 million, or a third of the population, by 2035. During the same period, working-age Cubans are expected to decline from 65 percent to 52 percent.

The future may look a lot like Emelia Moreno. Still vigorous at 75 years old, she lives alone in a small apartment in Central Havana and spends much of her time at Casa de los Abuelos that provides 1,000 retirees with medical attention, meals and social activities such as singing and dance classes. Again, it is free of charge.

Authorities recently asked seniors to keep active later in life by rolling the retirement age progressively back from 55 to 60 for women and from 60 to 65 for men. Raúl Castro himself is already 16 years past his golden-watch moment, at 81.

Cuba now allows retirees to return to work and still collect their pensions. They're also being encouraged to join the class of small-business owners setting up shop under Castro's reforms, though experts say that idea has limited potential. Never the less these small shops are everywhere as are the new private restaurants where we had many fine meals. At one of those restaurants there were several seniors having lunch together. We were told they come from the neighborhood and get a free lunch every day.

So few children, so many elderly. It's a central dilemma for a nation whose population is the oldest in Latin America, and getting older

The aging of Cuba's population has its roots in some of the core achievements of Fidel Castro's revolution, including a universal health care system which is completely free. Today Cubans are far less likely to suffer malnutrition, malaria or other typical third-world afflictions. Cuba’s health care record is undeniably strong. According to UNICEF, Cuba’s infant mortality rates—at 5.3 deaths per every 1,000 births—are lower than any other country in the Americas, except for Canada. Life expectancy on the island, at nearly 78 years, is on par with our own.

Cuba has sent its health care professionals to remote parts of nearly every continent around the world on humanitarian missions. Recently, their doctors went to Africa to respond to the Ebola crisis.

Looking ahead

Going forward, the United States will remove Cuba from the “state terrorism” listing, which will ease the possibility of funding from the international financial system. For American citizens, permission to travel to Cuba will be significantly widened. Business and trade possibilities will increase. Starting with the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama, the American and Cuban delegations will sit at the same table. The so-called interest sections will be upgraded to formal embassies. Many experts think the embargo is going to be hollowed out from within, with American tourist and investment dollars permitted to flow. With or without congressional action to lift the 1996 Helms-Burton act, the embargo will hopefully be dissolved. More than 400,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to Cuba last year alone. Cuba has more than 3 million visitors a year now and the potential for growth is huge.

Tom Hayden, writing for The Nation predicted: if the president has his wish, the Obama family will be seen on the streets of Havana before his term is up. I hope he is correct

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 In the next few weeks I am going to show some slides from our trip. If you would like to be informed of the date and location click below.

Tell me more about the Cuba Slide Show