The National Funeral Home, nine at night. In one of the rooms only one person is found. A woman is rocking in the chair furthest from the coffin. She’s filing her nails. “Who was the deceased?” asks someone from the doorway. “I don’t know; I’m here waiting for my daughter who went to the bathroom,” she answers. When she gets up and leaves, the casket is left alone. No one has come for the final goodbye.
The image of a society where families take responsibility for grandparents until the end of their days has shattered in recent decades in Cuba. The aging population, economic problems and high rates of migration among the young are some of the reasons that many elderly people find themselves without family support or company.
“You can plant a tree, raise a child or write a book, but that does not mean you won’t be alone when the reaper comes,” says Manolo, 81 years old, who lives in a rooming house in the Los Sitios neighborhood of Havana. A retired engineer, he has lived alone for more than 20 years since his son left for the United States during the rafting crisis. Among his greatest fears are dying with no one nearby and “that they find me because of the stench,” he says ironically.
According to official figures, 18.3% of the Island’s 11.1 million residents are over age 60, and by 2025 it is estimated that the elderly will exceed 25%. Cuba could become the most aged country in the Americas. The situation presents not only a challenge for the health care infrastructure and social security system, but also for family organization and humanitarian agencies.
Although it is still common to find grandchildren, parents and grandparents under the same roof given the serious housing problems, the cases of old people who live alone also have increased in recent years. According to the 2012 census, in 9% of Cuban homes at least three generations live together, but in 12.6%, old people live alone.
Every day, those people have to overcome the obstacles of solitary old age. Low pensions or lack of family affection are among the reasons that they do not spend their last years in the material comfort and affection that they always dreamed of. Instead, they have to take care of themselves, appealing to neighbors in search of support or asking for help from humanitarian organizations.
Laura, 64 years of age, is one of more than 3,000 volunteers from Caritas who assist some 28,000 people, especially the elderly, throughout the country. There is a lot of work given the increase in the number of people who are growing old alone. She believes that in a few years she, too, will need help because she never had children and she was widowed five years ago.
“I give food to some because they have problems getting around, while others I keep company on one afternoon or another, and I talk to them,” explains this retired teacher who lives on the outskirts of the city of Ciego de Avila. Based on her experience, “there are more old people living alone because many of their children have left the country.”
Across the hall of the rooming house in Los Sitios, where Manolo lives, an old woman has just been taken to the hospital. “Her daughters do not know, because we have to wait for them to call from Spain in order to give them the news,” he says. Nevertheless, the man believes that once admitted she is going to be more careful because they cannot keep taking care of her.
Bedridden, the woman needed her neighbors to help her bathe and eat. “Everyone living here is old, and we can no longer carry her to the bathroom,” the old neighbor worries. “The daughters send money for disposable diapers and skin cream, but they are not here to help day in and day out,” says the old man.
However, the Public Health system does not seem to be prepared to deal with the marked aging of the Island’s population, either. Of the more than 83,000 doctors in the country in 2013, only 279, some 0.33%, were specialized in Geriatrics and Gerontology.
In rural areas the phenomenon of old people living alone seems to occur less often, but it is still worrisome. “The youth don’t want to learn about the countryside, and they leave, so that this has turned into a town of old people,” says Maria Antonia, 69 years old and resident of Vertientes, Camaguey. One of her sons is working in Veradero in a construction crew, and the other “joined the military, and they gave him a house in Havana,” she explains.
The woman has a surprising routine for someone her age. “I get up before five to brew the coffee that I later go out to sell in some places.” She can be on her feet three or four hours in the morning to offer her merchandise. “When I return home, I am in a lot of pain,” she says. “But what am I going to do?” she asks resignedly.
“I only have neighbors when I am in pain and need to go to the doctor,” explains Maria Antonia, who suffers from heart disease. Nevertheless, she says she prefers her current situation of solitude to ending up in a nursing home. “No, that would kill me; I need to be active,” she says. For months she has not been able to clean because of arthritis in her hands, and she pays a woman to clean her house. “I’m fading little by little,” she explains uneasily.
More than 142,000 senior citizens reside in Camaguey province, but there is a capacity of only 911 beds in 13 nursing homes plus 24 daycare centers for the elderly. In statements to the local press, Doctor Jesus Regueira, head of the Elderly, Social Assistance and Mental Health section of the Provincial Public Health Department, has lamented that the availability of beds does not correspond “to the potential demand.”
However, most of the elderly consulted for this article say that the lack of family affection is the greatest problem of living alone. “Sometimes I spend days without talking to another person,” says Maria Antonia. “What I fear most is leaving this life without anyone knowing; it scares me that there is no one to close my eyes.”
Translated by Mary Lou Keel