Life of Seniors in Cuba

Cuba has a population with one of the highest percentages of the elderly in the world. Despite the Revolution boasting of paying attention to this part of public sector, Cuban seniors actually belong to one of the least privileged groups on the island.

Finding a proof is easy: it’s enough to watch the street life and the queues for food, industrial products or services, which are mostly formed of people above seventy years of age, who should enjoy a well-deserved rest after a lifetime of work.

Old people in Cuba. Illustrative photo
Old people in Cuba. Illustrative photo

“But it’s not like that,” complains Dr. Miriam Noa, a historian who has been fighting intensely to improve the quality of life of the elderly. “Most young people today are rude and inconsiderate. Many believe that they are making enough effort just by going to school and studying, that they don’t have to fulfil any other social duty or help with domestic chores. There may be some homes with old-school education, but they are in the minority. The usual thing is that home tasks are carried out by the parents and, above all, by the grandparents.”

85-years-old Claro Hidalgo suffers from circulatory and renal diseases, but he travels the town every day to do the errands.

“I’ve never done any harm in my life,” he says tearfully. “On the contrary, I believe that I was a good father, but now I feel mistreated in my own house. Despite coping with all my illnesses, I have to go and buy the bread, bring the orders from the grocer’s, fill up the gas tank and buy medicines at the pharmacy. Then I sit on a chair on the pavement in front of the house, because they say that I’m annoying and useless when I’m inside, that I’m a burden for them.”

In the queues that are so frequent in Cuba, you can always see elderly people standing for a long time in the sun, carrying heavy bags. Nidia Tejeda, shop assistant working for one of the grocery stores in the Flores neighbourhood, says that when she sees an old person in the queue, she always serves him or her first.

“Other people get upset, arguing that it’s how families cheat to buy goods before other customers. They don’t realize that it’s abuse, a total disregard. With me, old people always buy first.”

Young people are also often heard blaming the elderly for the unstable situation in the country.

“Aren’t they responsible for the Revolution? Well, let them bear the consequences,” says 17-year-old Yuniel, a pre-university student in Havana. “My business is to study for a new future.”

With respect to the lack of thoughtfulness, Dr. Miriam Noa says:

“It’s not only the youth who turn their backs on the elderly, it’s also the State. We live in a society suited to the needs of the young people. Buildings without elevators, automated services with technologies that the elderly aren’t able to use, architectural barriers impossible to overcome, broken pavements with tree roots blocking the way, poorly lit streets, lack of public toilets, aggressive public transport and drivers paying little respect to the senior population of Cuba.”

However, Carla, a young IT student, brings some clarity on the subject:

“I grew up with my grandparents, who are like my real parents. I would never allow any kind of abuse towards them, but I know that many young people despise the elderly. They leave all burdens on their shoulders as well as all the responsibilities, disregarding that they are sick or that they no longer have the strength to face such tasks. But it’s not only the fault of the grandchildren, it’s also the parents who have collaborated to their inhuman situation.”

Nereida, an elderly woman of 77 years, adds:

“When you want to get on a bus, you see a group of students pushing and taking the seats. When the elderly, often physically impaired or walking with crutches, finally manage to get on the bus, the young people don’t offer them their seats. The same happens when the elderly want to cross the street: nobody gives them a hand, they have to risk it and cross alone. When my granddaughter got married, they moved me out of the room where I had slept all my life. They furnished a room for me where I could stay, but it has no windows. They put there a bed for me and a fan and there I will live till the end of my days, at the back of the house, shut away from the world.”

Until a few years ago there had been groups and associations for the elderly, which were trying to improve the quality of life of this part of the population, but they have disappeared.

“The only exercise for older people now is to carry a bag from the grocery store or the agro market,” says 80-year-old Luisa, who lives in the peripheral neighbourhood of Romerillo in the Playa municipality. “I have arthritis and suffer from sacro lumbar pain, but yesterday I had to carry a bag of potatoes on my back, all the way from the grocery store at Quinta B and 110 to my house, which is at Novena and 114. The total of eight blocks! Do you think that any young man condescended to help me? Nobody approached me to tell me: ‘Give me that bag, grandma, you are too old to carry that weight.’ On the contrary, there was a group of young people playing in the street and they almost knocked me down when they were running after the ball. They even got upset because they had to stop the game for a while and wait for me to pass. They see old people as a hindrance, as beings who shouldn’t be here any longer and if they are, they should do the errands and leave them their homes, for which the young repay them by making their lives hard to bear until they leave this world. Then they say: ‘may the old woman rest in peace, she has lived long enough.’”