Nursing homes in Cuba are few, poor, and underserved

Adriel Reyes in Martí News:

Nursing homes in Cuba are few, poor, and underserved

Cuba’s elderly population is growing, while the number of centers designed to serve them is tumbling.

Hundreds of "maniseros," selling peanuts populate the streets of Havana. Almost all are elderly retirees.
Hundreds of “maniseros,” selling peanuts populate the streets of Havana. Almost all are elderly retirees.

Natalia was born in 1950. She earned her degree in economics and although she married, she had no children. She worked for 43 years until she retired. Today, she is a widow. For half a decade, she’s been on a waiting list for a nursing home. Her home, tired and worn by time, seems to fall on her.  She has no family and by now, her friends are few. Her story is one of many.

A comparative study of the results between the Census of Population and Housing and the Health Statistical Yearbooks for 2002 and 2012, reveal the increase in the number of elderly people in Cuba and the decreased ability of nursing homes to care for them. Care takers are also on the decline.

In the decade between 2002 and 2012, the Cuban population aged almost four percentage points, moving just beyond 2 million people. At the same time, the capacity of nursing homes decreased by 10.5 % or 773 less available slots. According to official information, the capacity of the 127 nursing homes on the island decreased from 8,348 to 7,453.

In 2013, only 1 in 274 of the elderly had the possibility of being received full time into nursing homes. One in 1,579 were provided board for part of the day. “In order for you to be admitted to a nursing home, you have to have connections or have to be very sick,” said Juan Antonio, an alcoholic elderly man from Cienfuegos, who was rejected by the community and his own family and has been waiting to enter one of these centers.

A report by Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health for the ECLAC reveals that nursing homes on the island are for those who are in need or require continuing care and lack any ability to remain in the community.

Alberto Fernández, head of the Department of Elderly, Social Assistance and Mental Health, acknowledged in late 2013 that demand is increasing. Applications to enter nursing homes are estimated at more than 20,000–about three times the current capacity.

Although nursing homes served by the Cuban government have accommodations, none of them are yet able to provide for the approximately 130,000 cases of those who suffer from a disability, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Life on the Inside

Life inside a nursing home in Cuba is determined by two main factors: income and the health and mobility of the elderly.

“Those who receive a minimum pension (200 pesos per month) can hardly do anything beyond buy their medicines or food on the street to reinforce their diet,” said a nursing home patient of San Germán, Holguín.

“At least I can move and so I help others, but there are those who cannot even buy a bite to eat,” he claims.  “Retirees are better off,” compared to those receiving a pension.

Another patient considers it abusive that the nursing home spent a week, “giving the old folks broth with two sweet potatoes that they threw out and did not have water for bathing.”

Although government agencies and various NGOs make donations to these centers, Lilian Ruiz from Havana claims that sometimes the workers themselves traffic with the few things that are given to them, such as sheets, food and soap.

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