Warehouses for Old People / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

An old man looks at his reflection. (14ymedio)

An old man looks at his reflection. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, August 11, 2014 – “Very soon the best businesses in Cuba will be trash and old people,” blurts out the owner of an old age home, without blushing. Places like hers aren’t recognized at all by the law, but they have emerged to meet the demand of an increasingly aging people.

It is estimated that in a decade that more than 26% of the Cuban population will be over 60. The needs of these millions of seniors will be felt in Public Health, social security, and the network of old age homes available in the country. Throughout the Island there are only 126 homes with room for fewer than 10,000 elderly, a ridiculous figure given that the demands are increasing. With regards to specialized doctors, the country has fewer than 150 geriatric specialists.

Housing problems are forcing more families to entrust the care of their grandparents to state or religious institutions. That, coupled with the economic problems and low pensions, make caring for the elderly ever more complicated for their relatives.

There is no welcome sign and if someone calls to ask for details she responds cautiously.

“My father of almost 90 got sick,” says Cary, a entrepreneur who offers services as a caregiver to the elderly. “I didn’t want to send him to a nursing home, so I had to devote myself to taking care of him full time. Then it occurred to me I could do the same for other old people.” The woman has a thriving business, where she offers clients, “breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks.”

Cary’s home is advertised online, costs at least 70 CUC a month and, its owner says, “Here we have a hairdresser, barber, pedicures; they can even stay from Monday to Friday. We treat our clients with kindness and like family.” There is no welcome sign on the pleasant home, if someone is interested and calls to ask for details, she responds cautiously. Potential clients must come recommended or be the friend of a friend.

On the list of self-employment professions permitted, is “caretaker of the sick, disabled and elderly,” but the license only allows attention, without other benefits. Cary should take out several additional licenses, as a dispenser of food—because the elderly eat in her house—and a license to rent rooms, which authorizes overnight guests. The cost of the three licenses would make her business unprofitable. She already has problems with the police and now she has to tell the neighbors that she is taking care of some of her father’s “brothers and cousins.”

Despite the high prices, these initiatives are in great demand, due to the limited capacity of the state asylums and their deteriorating installations. Getting into these official places is not easy. You need to go the family doctor, who will refer the case to a social worker. The decision may take years, although some accelerate it by paying a “stimulus” to get the paperwork in record time. Then you have to way for a space to open in a place in the municipality or the province.

The situation reached a point of deterioration that the State was forced to delegate the care of the Catholic Church

The old age homes hit bottom during the economic crisis of the 90s. The situation got to the point where the State was forced to delegate part of the care and hygiene tasks to the Catholic Church. Many of the old age homes were almost completely overseen by religious congregations, such as the Servants of the Abandoned Brothers, the Daughters of Charity, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Brothers of St. John of God. Thanks to this collaboration complete collapse was avoided, although they barely built and readied new sites.

Self-employed people have began to take a position in this sector: private homes that are rebuilt to fit a hospital bed, the doors widened for wheelchairs, and accessories are added to bathrooms to support older people. All this is done with great discretion, without anything noticeable from the outside of the house that would suggest a conversion to a private asylum.

“Most of the cases we take care of come from far away,” explains Angelica, a retired nurse who has opened her own old age home. She has competitive prices, around 60 CUC, and it includes clinical services and physiotherapy, physical exercises and excursions to Saturday work parties.

The responsibility is great, but the families of the elderly are very demanding, given the high price they pay. The majority are people with a child who has emigrated who pays, from afar, for care for the father or mother. “Sometimes they make first world demands, like an electric bed, or putting cameras in the rooms to monitor what the old people do all the time,” Angelica complains.

I’ve had to accompany some of my clients in their last moments,” the lady says, who despite also being elderly herself is strong and agile. “I can’t advertise it, but I also offer the service of being with the old man in his death throes, holding his hand, reading and talking to him, so he doesn’t feel alone at the moment of death.”

“If my children continue with the business, soon I will be a client of my own old age home,” she says with a certain pleasure. A bell rings and while she goes to feed a ninety-year-old sitting in front of the TV, Angelica reflects outloud, “Don’t let anyone send me to one of the State’s ‘old folks warehouses.’ I want to stay here.”