When Vicente Perez decided to take his wife and children out of Cuba and start over, he made sure to work diligently and save enough money to retire and live comfortably.
But at 79, Perez is in deteriorating health in the big house where he raised his family and in deep financial trouble. He is also the sole caregiver for his adult son who suffers from mental health issues.
Perez said he used his savings to help two of his four children pay their mortgages and avoid foreclosure during the economic downturn in South Florida. Then he had expensive medical bills for prostate cancer treatment and other health conditions.
“I don’t feel well. My credit is ruined, and I don’t see a way out,” he said. “I am physically and emotionally overwhelmed with the circumstances.”
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At the rate he is going, Perez said he will have to stop paying his bills so he can afford groceries.
In the past, family members have pitched in to help Perez pay for essentials, like his taxes and insurance. He contemplated declaring bankruptcy, but he wouldn’t even know how to pay a lawyer for it.
“It’s not in my character to stop paying my bills. Not paying at my age is unacceptable,” he said. “But I never saw myself in this situation. I used to pay a week in advance.”
About five years ago, Perez sought help from the North Miami Foundation for Senior Citizens Service. Since then, they have sent him five frozen meals every Saturday and a housekeeper to clean for an hour every two weeks.
Sandi Dioli Kumm, program administrator at the foundation, said Perez asked them for guidance and that they have gradually convinced him to accept more help and services. The foundation helped Perez sign up for food stamps, refurbished his front-porch bench and helped prepare him for hurricane season.
“Any little kindness always touches his heart,” Kumm said. “He’s had so many difficult life circumstances.”
Perez appreciates the help, since he finds it hard to maintain the house by himself. He recently found out that he needs help exterminating termites, and his decades-old royal poinciana trees need trimming before they become a hazard.
“A branch fell on my car and shattered the back window,” he said. “The one in the back is tangled with the electrical and phone cables.”
Perez and his family brought the trees from the Keys and planted one in his front yard and two in his back yard as a sentimental reminder of his homeland. His family had always planted poinciana trees at their houses in Cuba.
“It’s like having a piece of home back,” he said.
His son, Vincente Reynest Perez, 53, lives with him but isn’t working. Perez said his son, who suffers from bipolar disorder, only started seeking treatment when he was almost 40.
“It’s been a long process,” Perez said. “He was aggressive when he had a [bipolar] episode. There hasn’t been a happy medium.”
His son’s move back home years ago broke up Perez’s marriage. He had been with his wife, Esther, since they were teenagers in Cienfuegos, Cuba.
“My world turned upside down. She could not deal with our son’s habits,” he said. “It was the biggest dilemma of my life. I had to choose between my son and my wife, but I could not abandon my son.”
Perez and his wife have been separated for years now, but they maintain a friendship because they still care for each other.
“She comes once a week and cooks for me, checking in. It’s been like that since,” he said.
Occasionally, he sees his other children, who are scattered around Florida, and he calls his sister who lives in Orlando.
Perez, who always had a positive outlook on life, said he has lost hope.
All he can do is sit on his front porch and feed his birds, biding his time.
“I am discouraged and frustrated,” he said. “All I can do is survive, and not very well.”
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