Cuba's graying population strains meager resources
By MIKE WILLIAMS
Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service
Monday, September 03, 2007
HAVANA — The ladies at Havana's Siervas de San Jose Home for Elderly
Women laugh and chat in the sunny courtyard of the historic mansion,
clapping their hands and singing when visitors arrive.
The residential home for seniors is somewhat rare in Cuba, where
families traditionally care for their aging relatives in the home. But
with scarce resources and a growing elderly population, Cuba faces a
challenge in coming years in caring for its seniors.
Government officials estimate that by 2025, 26 percent of Cuba's
population will be age 60 or older, making it one of the top countries
in the world for percentage of elderly population.
"In a few years, it is almost certain that the demand for senior citizen
centers, dining halls, homes and other senior citizen facilities will
exceed the new factories and schools," Cuba's leading newspaper, Granma,
reported last year.
It is a story not unlike those reported in the United States, where a
huge generation of Baby Boomers will soon retire, raising concerns about
the solvency of the Social Security system and how society will provide
for the elderly.
In some ways, the challenge in Cuba is because of the communist island's
claims of success in the public health field. Although its per-capita
income is low — salaries hover around $15 a month — Cuba has managed to
vault past other Third World countries by raising the life expectancy of
its citizens to 77 years, on par with the U.S. and ranking well among
Cuba someday hopes to rival Japan — where life expectancy is 81 years —
for the world's top ranking among industrialized nations. Andorra, a
tiny country in the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain, has the
longest life expectancy, at 83.5 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Cuban officials point to their public health system and preventive care
as explanations, although critics say the island's poor often have
trouble obtaining care and medicines and the life expectancy figures are
padded in part by a low birth rate and high level of emigration.
A leader in Cuba's geriatric field is Dr. Eugenio Selman, who in 2003
founded the "120 Years Club," claiming that Cubans — and other people
around the world — can live to the ripe old age of 120.
"The possibility exists," said Selman, still forceful at 77 and
president of the club, which has about 5,000 members in countries around
the world. "Our 2002 census showed Cuba now has over 2,000 people who
are past 100 years old."
Selman advocates a program much like that of other researchers,
insisting that good diet and health care, motivation, exercise and a
healthy environment are keys to long life.
"You need to take the stairs instead of riding in the elevator, and walk
instead of driving in a car," he said.
Selman counts Fidel Castro among his patients, but in a recent interview
he declined to speak about the 81-year-old leader of Cuba's 1959
revolution. Castro has been absent from the public stage since falling
ill with a stomach ailment a year ago, when he turned over power to his
younger brother, Raul. Details of the senior Castro's condition remain a
At Siervas de San Jose, Sister Paquita Pedrido, a Spanish Catholic nun
who runs the facility, says she has been impressed by Cuba's concern for
"Cubans often live long lives," she said. "We had one grandmother who
lived to 101. I believe it is because they worked hard all their lives
and they have the support of their families and the community."
The home — which Pedrido said is aided by money from the Cuban
government — has about two dozen full-time elderly residents who no
longer have families to take care of them. Another 30 or so women come
to the home each day for meals and activities, then return home to their
families in the evening.
"I believe the health and education systems in Cuba are also factors in
people living long lives," Pedrido said. "Families here get lots of
information on preventive care, and they take a great interest in health."
Still, the challenge facing Cuba and its growing population of elderly
is significant. Retired workers expect support from the state, and as
their numbers increase, the burden on the government will grow.
Cuban retirees typically receive pensions of only about $10 a month.
Raul Castro has recently made several statements saying that salaries
and resources available to individuals must rise, and some analysts
believe he will undertake reforms aimed at improving the quality of life
for average Cubans.
Selman believes the state will meet the challenge of caring for the
elderly, and says his experience in promoting the 120 Years Club
convinces him there will be a growing global movement, too.
"We announced the formation of our club on a Friday," he said. "Saturday
and Sunday were not business days, but when we arrived at the office on
Monday morning, we had 321 e-mails from people wanting to join, from as
far away as Nigeria and Japan."