Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population, Poverty & SDGs

CUBA: A Good Old Age in Old Havana

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Mar 5 2010 (IPS) - In the centre of Old Havana, historic buildings are being restored without neglecting the occupants who are their heart and soul. The priority is to care for elderly residents with programmes that could become a model for the rest of Cuba, whose population is ageing fast.

More than 17 percent of the population of Old Havana is aged over 60, making it the municipality with the highest number of people in this age bracket in the country.

The National Statistics Office (ONE) forecasts that Cuba will have over 2.2 million older adults in five years’ time, equivalent to 19.6 percent of the population of 11.2 million.

And according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Cuba will head the list of Latin American and Caribbean countries with the most elderly populations by 2025.

Within 15 years, 25.9 percent of Cubans will be over 60, followed by Barbados (25.4 percent), Trinidad and Tobago (20.5 percent), Uruguay (20 percent) and Chile (18.4 percent), says UNFPA.

This rapid process of demographic change poses the challenge of providing infrastructure and social and health services appropriate for a population group that at the age of 60 can expect to live another two decades or more in Cuba, according to ONE’s life expectancy projections.

The Convento de Belén Day Centre exemplifies some key guidelines, such as offering special housing equipped for the disabilities intrinsic to old age, and social and cultural programmes to improve quality of life.

“When I came here, I was sad and downhearted. But that’s all in the past, now I feel fine, and I’m useful. The older adults themselves elected me their president,” 77-year-old Cira Blanco told IPS. A former teacher, her experience serves her well in her work of organising the 600 or so older people who attend the Day Centre every day.

This project is one of the programmes with the greatest social impact among those developed by the Humanitarian Affairs section of the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana, based in the former Convent of Our Lady of Bethlehem, a restored 18th century building in the historic heart of Old Havana.

On a day like any other, IPS visited the Day Centre and found groups playing animated games of dominoes, which is very popular in Cuba, while two or three women were busy making pyjamas for the sick, and others were helping Magali Hernández, who cares for 150 bed-ridden elderly patients in their own homes.

Hernández, a retired nurse and a volunteer, shoulders the responsibility for sick people in the neighbourhood, with the support of 26 helpers from the Day Centre. “We visit them and provide them with the food, clothes and medicines they need, especially if they have no family and live alone,” Hernández said.

Elderly men and women in better health come to the Day Centre, and start their day with a refreshing exercise session in the small square in front of the building. After a period of “reflection,” discussing current affairs and topics of interest to them, they join activities in various workshops.

The range of workshop options includes visual arts, computers, leather working, knitting, papier mâché, theatre, music and dance. “Taking part in these activities changes their lives because they themselves have the starring role. They help distribute donations, or they visit the sick, and they help each other,” said Esther Ruiz, a nurse.

As for housing, one of Cuba’s most pressing problems, there is a system of homes for older people without any particular infirmities but who were living in precarious conditions. So far, four such homes have been built, housing 54 people including a number of married couples.

The apartments are fully equipped to suit their needs, including safety rails, grab bars in bath tubs and shower chairs. In emergencies, they can press either of two buttons to alert management. “As you see, we lack for nothing to live with peace of mind,” said 68-year-old Victoria López.

López works as a cleaner in the old city. Her husband, 73-year-old Emilio Medino, is already retired, but he likes to make himself useful and is a volunteer in charge of plumbing and maintenance in their 12-apartment building. “Coming here was a radical change. My wife weighed only 70 pounds (under 32 kilos) back then,” he said.

Residents in these units pay no rent, keep their retirement pensions, and get extra help with food and medicines. A state employee does their laundry and cleans the common areas. “We’re looking at similar projects in order to improve the system,” said lawyer Julio César Torres.

The Humanitarian Affairs section focuses on people’s needs, which in the case of the elderly are obvious. “Older adults are more vulnerable by nature, so caring for their needs was the first goal, though not the only one, of this department,” said its head, Nelson Águila.

The projects are financially supported by the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana and by international aid donors, especially Italy and Spain.

“We have confidence in the development of our country; these programmes enjoy high priority and I would say their future is guaranteed,” said Águila.

The Day Centre has a physiotherapy room, a pharmacy, and ophthalmology and optometry services. During tropical storms and hurricanes, it is used as a shelter for vulnerable sectors of the population like the elderly, or people living in the areas of greatest risk. It also cooperates with the care of children with disabilities.

Experts point out that rapid ageing of the population in any country implies structural changes that require appropriate responses, by means of public spending programmes that anticipate future needs in terms of housing, transport, and infrastructure generally.

“From the point of view of urban planning, appropriate facilities and services must be created, incorporating the latest architectural and functional design concepts,” wrote architect Miguel Coyula in an article published in Temas, the leading Cuban magazine in the social sciences.

Cuba has a national programme for older adults, and in recent years has implemented initiatives aimed at guaranteeing a satisfactory old age, although experts say not enough measures are being taken.

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