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‘Circulos de Abuelos’ serve Cuba’s rapidly aging population — the oldest in the Americas

Elderly participants in the Circulo de Abuelos program at Nuestra Señora de la Merced church in Old Havana toast each other with coffee on the rooftop of the elderly center. Cuba has the oldest population in the Americas.
Elderly participants in the Circulo de Abuelos program at Nuestra Señora de la Merced church in Old Havana toast each other with coffee on the rooftop of the elderly center. Cuba has the oldest population in the Americas. adiaz@miamiherald.com

It’s snack time and a social worker brings five servings of yogurt with a side of bread and cream cheese into the television room where a group of elderly ladies are watching a Colombian soap opera called La Nocturna.

Other participants in this Círculo de Abuelos (Grandparents’ Circle) at Nuestra Señora de la Merced church in Old Havana stop their games of dominoes or pause from reading the newspapers to get their cups of yogurt. After their snack, many sit in rocking chairs catching the breeze that comes in from the balcony or go back to their board games.

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Félix Eulogio Abreu Herrera, 93, plays dominoes at a Circulo de Abuelos in Old Havana. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Such círculos, or adult daycare programs, are part of the government’s response to an unprecedented demographic shift: the graying of the Cuban population. By 2025, the percentage of Cubans over age 60 is expected to grow to 30 percent. Already 20.1 percent of the Cuban population is over 60, making Cuba the oldest country in the Americas.

A combination of factors such as long life expectancy, low birth and fertility rates, and social factors such as out-migration among younger Cubans means the island’s population is shrinking while the percentage of elderly is growing.

Cuba’s universal healthcare system and its emphasis on preventive care has resulted in Cubans living longer. The average life expectancy for a Cuban man is 76.8 years and 81.3 years for a woman, according to 2018 data from the World Health Organization. Both are slightly higher than life expectancies in the United States.

Many of us reach for that morning cup of coffee without giving much thought to how it might benefit us –other than getting us out of bed.

From 2010 to 2017, Cuba’s population decreased from 11.26 million to 11.22 million and its fertility rate stood at 1.71, meaning that the average number of children born to women during their reproductive years is less than two. A rate of at least two children per woman is considered the replacement rate for a population, which allows it to exactly replace itself from one generation to the next.

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Ines María Viena Rodríguez, 80, sits on chair inside la Merced center in Old Havana, Cuba. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

That population decrease means a shrinking pool of young people who are active in the labor force must support a growing number of pensioners, which demographers say isn’t sustainable.

Several years ago, the Cuban government began to progressively raise its retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 60 for women. It also allowed people to collect their pensions and still work.

In December, amid growing economic problems on the island, the government raised the minimum pension from 200 Cuban pesos to 249 Cuban pesos, which amounts to less than $10. Many pensioners complain they are barely getting by.

Coupled with physical barriers such as cobbled streets and rutted sidewalks and buildings in poor repair where elevators haven’t worked in years, it’s tough to get old in Havana.

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Dora Eusevia González Hernández, 92, sits on a bench inside la Merced center in Havana, Cuba. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

In a paper called “Aging in an Aging City,” Miguel Coyula, a Cuban architect and urban planner, says: “From the perspective of equity and social inclusion, Havana’s infrastructure and services are inadequate, and still more inadequate for older adults.

“Added to this are the architectural barriers represented by buildings with stairs-only entrances, without washroom facilities designed for older or disabled persons, limiting their access and contributing to social isolation,” says Coyula.

“I don’t know how some of them manage. We have one woman who navigates here with crutches and she lives in a very high building,” said Diamela Vidal Granda, the social worker for the la Merced program. “I was out of breath when I went to visit her and had to go up the stairs.”

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In this file photo, elderly participants in the Circulo de Abuelos program, Yolanda Montane, left, and Juana Aleman, right, walk to Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Merced for church services. Montane is now sick and cannot go to the center. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

For Juana Alemán, the la Merced Círculo de Abuelos is something of a lifesaver. Her husband died more than 40 years ago and she said she has no siblings, “no one.”

“Because I was so lonely, I decided to join. At least here I can talk to the other women. The care is very good,” said Alemán who is in her nineties. “I feel happy here because I’m sharing with other women.”

More older Californians are winding up in emergency rooms after falling. Aging baby boomers and older adults are susceptible; health experts urge fitness.

About 35 to 40 people come regularly to the círculo and another 20 to 25 or so are enrolled in the program but are too sick to come very often. The círculo helps them out by taking them meals, said Héctor Luis Camarero, the program administrator. On this day, fish picadillo, rice and black beans, sweet potato and chocolate rice pudding was on the lunchtime menu.

Many Cuban communities have círculos and one of the most visible signs of them are elderly people running through exercises in the morning in parks and other public spaces.

Like other Círculos de Abuelos, the la Merced program gets funding for food, salaries and some other expenses from Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health. The program also receives funds from the Order of Malta, an ancient lay religious order of the Catholic Church, and other donations, allowing it to offer extra services that other centers lack.

There’s a shower room, and a beauty salon where participants can get their hair washed and women can get their nails painted from a selection that includes pink, blue sparkles and gold. Sometimes, beauty school students come to help out.

Círculo participants also volunteer to work in a clothing storeroom where they sort donated clothes by gender, size and style. Everyone who attends the program is entitled to periodic clothing distributions.

There’s also a laundry and pressing service presided over by 66-year-old Yolanda Paredes González.

Out on the roof of the center, she hangs up sheets, T-shirts and a pair of men’s pants to dry. It’s an important service for elderly clients who don’t have any laundry service at home.

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Yolanda Paredes González, 66, does the laundry for participants at the Circulo de Abuelos in Old Havana. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Inside the laundry room, a picture of Jesus hangs over the washing machine. “Everything is as it should be. Jesus Christ is present,” said Paredes González. Hosting the program is part of la Merced’s mission to serve the poor.

Participants also keep busy drawing, going to choir practice, and taking part in occasional dances, storytelling sessions and recitals. There is also a space for women to sew and knit.

“We’re seeing more partnerships between the Ministry of Public Health and churches and synagogues to try to respond to the needs of the elderly. It’s a challenge for the government because Cuba has the oldest population in the Americas,” said the Rev. Gilbert Walker, the rector at la Merced.

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Irma Pérez receives communion by the Rev. Hector Farfan at la Merced church in Havana, Cuba. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

“Thank God the Catholic Church has this program,” said Marcos Reyes, 64, who comes to the círculo from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday. He takes part in the exercise program and also enjoys talking with his contemporaries.

“This is like group therapy. At home I don’t have anyone to talk to. I don’t have a TV and I have a radio from the Soviet era,” said Reyes. Here he can play dominoes, bingo and other table games, get his clothes laundered, and take part in the periodic distribution of donated clothing. [He was wearing a yellow T-shirt from a Jobs Corps center in New York, one of the items that had been donated.]

Reyes retired two years ago and has no family. “I never married and I have no family either here or in the United States to help,” he said. “My living conditions really aren’t good and I live in a building that is in the very worst condition.” He inhabits just a single room with a shared bath in an Old Havana building.

Now Reyes, who retired early due to circulation problems that prevented him from working, lives on a pension of 270 pesos a month (about $10).

“Medicines, clothes are very expensive here in Cuba, so this program is really a relief for me,” Reyes said, his eyes tearing. “I really owe a lot to the church for this program.”

Mimi Whitefield has covered Latin America and the Caribbean for more than two decades. The Miami Herald’s former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief and a 2017 winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, she now focuses on Cuba coverage.
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