14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 1 November 2018 — The promise to be included in the will, 60 convertible pesos a month and a roof over her head in Havana is what Rebecca, from Guantanamo, receives for taking care of an elderly couple in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood. This phenomenon, not exempt from risks, is increasingly common on the Island, where the number of senior citizens is growing.
With a deficit of residential care facilities and social workers, the authorities have recognized that elder care is riddled with legal loopholes. The Government has authorized a self-employment license to act as caretaker for the elderly, for which the self-employed person receives a payment, but any other terms of the agreement between caregivers and the elderly (or their relatives) are merely verbal, outside the law and may be breached by one of the two parties.
“I started doing this work out of necessity, because I arrived in Havana and had nowhere to live,” recalls Rebecca, a divorcee with two children, one of whom lives with her in home of the retired couple. “It is hard work because not only is it my job to ensure that they are fed, they are clean and they take their medication, but I also have to give them affection,” she says.
Working as a nurse for more than 15 years in a polyclinic in the city of Guantanamo has helped her to practice her new profession. “Most of the people who are now caring for the elderly come from the Public Health sector,” says Rebeca. “There we learn many procedures that are important when looking after a senior citizen.”
On the shelf of the living room where the elderly couple live there is a photograph from more than a decade ago where you can see the parents, who stayed in Cuba, together with the children who emigrated. The two children send money from the United States to pay the caregiver, along with packages of food and disposable diapers. “But they almost never call and haven’t come for three years,” explains Rebeca.
In the same block, six other elderly people live in similar situations, some receive remittances and others live through begging. There are also those who suffer from lack of attention or mistreatment or who only survive because the neighbors have taken charge of their care.
The practice of caring for dependent elderly people in order to obtain some benefits in return has meant that many Cubans do not live their last years alone, but it also entails great dangers when either party fails to comply with its part of the agreement, especially for dependent seniors.
“It is a common situation for old people to put in their will someone who will take care of them, but after that person has rights over the house, they often don’t do their part,” laments Iloisa who works for a notary in the San Miguel del Padrón municipality. “The risks are high if the family can not control whether everything is going well and that the elderly person is receiving good care.”
Marisabel Ferrer García, head of the Labor Directorate of the municipality of Diez de Octubre, recently acknowledged in the official press that “it is very risky to install an unknown individual inside the home, due to the risk of robbery and mistreatment,” but that it is still a very helpful solution.
At the Zanja Street Police Station in Havana, reports of elders suffering from abuse are common, an officer on duty explains to 14ymedio, showing the file where the complaints are received. “We have had cases of very old people locked in small rooms so they do not escape and even tied to beds or with clear signs of malnutrition,” he explains.
“As a general rule, when we receive these complaints, we pass them on to social workers to visit the place, but we can’t do much,” he admits. “The harshest cases we have had are with caregivers who tell the family, who do not live in Cuba, that they are taking good care of the old man, but in reality it is not like that, they mistreat him and even rob him.”
“Many times caregivers for the elderly focus all their attention on physical needs, especially for those who have mobility problems and are confined inside their homes, but that is a time when the individual needs a lot of affection and emotional support,” psychiatrist Indira Villavicencio explains to this newspaper.
For Villavicencio, due to the great need that exists “for caregivers right now in the country, it happens that people without preparation or who are not trained to care for the elderly in all aspects, are in charge of their care and without the presence of the elderly’s children or relatives to supervise their work.”
The mistreatment of the elderly is rarely reported, points out the psychologist, “because the elderly do not have the ability to tell an authority to help them, because they fear ending up more alone if they lose their caregiver or because they are afraid of suffering greater reprisals from the caregiver,” she says.
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