HAVANA — It is no secret that the Cuban population has been aging rapidly. The classical definition of aging establishes the increase in the proportion of elderly people to the rest of the population.
But it is also seen as the inversion of the age pyramid, because the phenomenon is not only an increase in the proportion of the elderly but also a reduction in the proportion of adolescents and children under the age of 15.
In Cuba in 1978, the number of seniors exceeded 10 percent of the total population. At present, it is 15.1 percent and the lifetime expectancy is about 78. This growth, added to the decrease in births, implies a narrowing of the base of the population pyramid and an expansion of the top.
Demographers believe that in 2025 almost 1 out of every 4 Cubans will be an adult with an average age of 44.
We’re all headed in that direction. And in 1959 Cuba began to make radical changes in the medical care for the population. Social Security Law No. 24, enacted in the 1980s, expanded the geriatric services of the National Health System. Senior centers and nursing homes were created and later, in the 2000s, the Older Adult University was founded.
However, not all of us are aware of the aging process that awaits us, individually and throughout the general population. Life in a country with basic shortages already has a potential for accentuating the physical and emotional deterioration that degenerates cells and the immune system.
To make matters worse, we are exposed daily to the sun and a choking humidity that exhaust us and threaten us with diseases of the skin and the respiratory system.
We look gorgeous in our tropical tan, but in the long run the skin remembers that it was punished by the UV rays. The least that can happen is an early development of wrinkles, white hair and skin spots — not to mention cancer.
In their effort to stay alive, Cubans are not aware of their exposure to early aging and of the speed with which this country will age, with all its implications: a decrease in intellectual and physical production, the need for medical attention, for medicine, for caregivers, surroundings and physical-environmental structures, all of which are essential.
In 2014, health authorities programmed a restructuring and restoration of homes for the elderly. With a 66-million-peso budget, they set out to improve the senior citizens’ quality of life through the expansion of facilities and comfort, as well as the elimination of architectural barriers in those places.
That project has been adhered to closely, yet today we see deterioration and neglect in areas that aimed for comfortable, constructive places with a low index of overcrowding and even hair-dressing and laundry facilities, among other services.
Cubans are terrified of sending their elders to asylums, because it’s part of our idiosyncrasy, our ignorance and the stigma such institutions bear. There, the meat is shredded because “it will go farther” for the elderly residents, the bathroom mirror is only a frame because somebody needed the glass and these old people don’t need to look at their wrinkles, and only one in 10 nurses will be a loving caregiver.
However, we would have to educate the population into recognizing these spaces as adequate for the socialization and daily exchange of senior citizens with people their own age and interests, as well as the place where they’ll receive physical and psychological treament that is personalized and specialized.
We would also have to promote the possibility of recreational space for the daycare centers or homes for the elderly as an alternative that does not entirely separate the resident from his or her family. For all this, however, there needs to be an infrastructure, money and space.
The greater the logistical and financial challenge is for the State, the greater should be its function to educate the people in this imminent new circumstance. Working with someone who is already a senior is not enough. We’ll have to teach Cubans to age, to improve their lifelong habits, but also to improve them — and I refer to the possible variety in nourishment, to an alimentary education supported by a correct strategy for securing supplies.
TV spots and self-help books are insufficient when one has already learned about protection from the sun and the sun lotions are very expensive and the quality of parasols is atrocious.
It is useless for people to be told that they must eat fruit and vegetables and that a varied nutrition prolongs life, prevents cancer and cardiovascular disease, when nobody can identify three main meals other than chicken, eggs and pork.
And when I say “nobody” I’m not talking about the one-third of Cubans who can not only describe other foods but also have easy access to them. But they must also be taught how to feed themselves. It’s not so much a question of abundance as it is of balance.
It’s up to Cuba to think up a new structure to promote child-bearing. To promote it in fact, because, ever since we started talking about it, people are in the same situation and there are families where two is a crowd. “To bear children? Not in my lifetime!”
Provisions must be made that will enable us to grow old with enough strength to continue doing the jobs that few others can do. There will not be enough baton-passing, or new blood. And one of the things that steal our enthusiasm is the lack of faith, the exhaustion after 40 or 50 years of work with little satisfaction or greater dissatisfaction, because we continue to be people who try hard and dream and feel fulfilled with at least one item in their bucket list.
We’ll have to learn to age as individuals, as relatives, as creators — as all Cubans do. Each of us must be responsible, but we’ll need an infrastructure that only the State can provide.
My aunt Elena never tires of saying that she wants to be euthanized when she reaches the age of 60. Not me. I’d love to be a very old lady but I want to keep my enormous wings.
Progreso Weekly authorizes the total or partial reproduction of the articles by our journalists, so long as the original source and author are identified.