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CUBA: Providing the Tools for an Active, Fruitful Old Age

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Oct 4 2007 (IPS) - Becoming a senior citizen in Cuba has ceased to be seen as a tragedy, the end of useful life and a resigned waiting for death. Embracing old age without fear, with its pain and its wisdom, appears to be the purpose of thousands of women and men who attend classes at the University for Older Adults.

By 2025, Cuba could be the country with the greatest proportion of elderly people in Latin America and the Caribbean, so getting ready to face the future is virtually obligatory for the institutions in charge of health policies, as well as for those who are still young enough to view the sunset of their days as a far-off prospect.

“After I retired, I thought my life was over. I felt completely useless,” Ofelia Díaz, 63, told IPS. “I wondered what I was going to do with my knowledge and training, and where I would find new motivation.”

She found a way out of her despondency in 2002, when she registered at the University for Older Adults branch in San Agustín, a low income neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Cuban capital.

“It was like getting my second wind, and starting again,” Díaz said. Now she is a teacher at the branch in her barrio, and its president.

Magaly González, also 63, said that participating in the university was “a way of learning how to deal with a stage of life we’d reached without any prior preparation.” At the classes she met people of her own age, whose interests were similar to hers, and she was able to make the most of her spare time.


The University for Older Adults is sponsored by the Cuban Workers’ Confederation (CTC), to which all the country’s trade unions are affiliated; the Higher Education Ministry (MES), particularly the University of Havana Faculty of Psychology; and the Cuban Pedagogical Association, which has ties with the Education Ministry.

There are about 900 branches of the university along the length and breadth of this Caribbean island nation, and more than 50,000 people, most of them over 60, have taken its courses.

Each course is made up of six modules of lectures on human development, preventive health measures, social security, cultural development and the efficient organisation of free time.

“It boosts self-esteem in older adults,” said Díaz, who said she got a lot of satisfaction from being back in the classroom as a teacher – even though she receives no remuneration – after spending 34 years as a biology teacher at a college prep school.

González said she appreciated the arts and crafts courses at the community Culture House, and the traditional Chinese Tai Chi exercises she does in the morning.

“You learn to defend your space, and you blot out of your mind the idea that you’re the oldest person in the household and that all you have left is to wait for death,” she said.

Although it has had government support from the outset, the University for Older Adults is finding it difficult to satisfy demand for classroom space, teaching materials and stable teaching staff, said Díaz, who regretted not having procured a permanent building yet for the classes in San Agustín.

Quite a few of the lecturers are graduates from the university itself, or their relatives, who teach on an honorary basis. The branches do not have funds to buy books or basic essentials like notebooks, blackboards and marker pens.

Díaz said she thinks Cuban society is not prepared to deal with the ageing of the population, although the government is studying measures in the fields of health, transport, nutrition and supply of essential items like shoes and clothing appropriate for senior citizens’ needs.

“Young people believe they’ll never grow old,” said Díaz. “It’s our job to teach them how to respect older people, and to face the challenges of old age.”

In González’s view, “human beings aren’t prepared for old age or for death. No one thinks they will get old, they see it as something far away in the future. They don’t talk about it, because getting old is ugly. That’s when the pains begin,” said this retired nurse, who as a young woman once worked in a home for the elderly for three years.

Cuba’s demographic transition to an older population has become a pressing issue. At present, 16.2 percent of its 11.2 million people are over 60, and in two decades, the proportion is expected to climb to 25 percent.

The fertility rate has been falling since the 1930s, and has been below the population replacement rate of two live births per woman since 1978 because of the high level of women’s education, their increasing responsibilities at work, and their access to effective reproductive health methods.

In addition, the severe economic crisis that broke out after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 drove up the cost of food, accentuated overcrowding in many homes, and prompted a growing number of people to leave the country.

Lack of foresight could have damaging consequences in a patriarchal society, where machismo is still the rule in many families. “Women are more determined than men at this age. Men don’t adapt well to life without work when they retire,” Díaz said.

Last year there were only five men in her class, compared with 56 women. The present generation of older adults, born in the 1940s, grew up with the stereotype that “a man’s place is in the street and a woman’s place is in the home,” a machista prejudice that prevents men from participating in the University for Older Adults.

“Men are the least prepared of all for growing old,” González said. “A man retires and will try to go on working, because he thinks staying at home is tantamount to dying.”

 
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