By Muriel J. Smith
Visiting a senior day care center in the heart of old Havana was an unforgettable experience. As the oldest in our group of six spending five days in Cuba, and being short of four score in years myself by a couple of months, I was particularly eager to see the health, care, and welfare of senior Cuban citizens.
In spite of the best efforts of caring people, and the inherent happiness of people who have known far better times, it was pathetic.
We walked from our casa along streets lined with the magnificent structures of late 19th and early 20th century architecture, buildings that haven’t seen improvements since the 1950s but are still inhabitable and remarkable, to the building among them that serves as a gathering place for seniors most days. There’s a small courtyard behind the L-shaped hallway where we engaged with some charming oldsters, all properly seated in not-so-comfortable chairs lined up along the walls, fans in hand to ward off the temperatures in the 90s. But lack of shade and insufficient comfortable seating for older bodies puts the outdoor scene kind of off limits during the daylight hours. We learned the residents all live on their own or with their families, walking the streets from their own homes or apartments to the gathering place where they’re given three meals a day, the company of their contemporaries, and on apparently frequent occasions, visits from their family members and local youngsters.
Our friends of volleyball scheduling, Pavel Valdes and his wife, Sandra Iglesias, of the Proyecto Sociocultural Comunitario BarrioHabana, are as generous with their time and talents with the older citizens as they are with the teens. Wrinkled, worn, tired faces literally lit up when Pavel walked in the door, himself with a broad grin and the announcement he was bringing guests from America. We were also accompanied by a dozen or so of the volleyball teens, all of whom apparently visit the care center quite often.
And what a reception we Americans got! As we walked from one chair to another, reaching out to shake hands and say our best buenas dias, gnarled, thin, bony hands reached out to bring us closer for hugs and kisses, words of welcome and joy. Clearly, here were people so happy to see us, not asking for anything, not seeming to want anything but the joy of seeing other people.
When Pavel told the older residents that I among his group was ochenta ( I understood 80 in Spanish!), they clapped, they laughed, they wanted to touch my face. And when Pavel then said I would sing, there was even more laughter.
I didn’t know the reason for it then, but because Pavel asked me to sing, I belted out “You are My Sunshine” in my very best alto, moving among the 30 or so residents as I did, amid much laughter and hand clapping. But the reason for his request was soon evident, as individual residents then stood up, each to present his own song. Pavel had used to me entice the seniors to show us their own talents.
There was the lady with the beautiful soprano voice and hand motions of a movie star; the 92 year old gentleman with the deep baritone and ballad song; the 80-something lady with the high pitched tones. Then came the magic, something Pavel called their Improv.
One woman stood up and began singing, her voice rising and falling with emotion that bordered on anger at times, love at others. She was joined by a man who put his arm around her and carried on his own soliliquy in musical tones. It appeared they were playing roles in a Spanish opera about love and devotion. Soon, a third senior, another woman, stood and joined the duo, vying for the gentleman’s attention and trying to shut out the other woman. We were mesmerized as these three senior citizens told in song a story they were making up as they went along, a story of love, intrigue, perhaps jealousy and ownership, each taking his turn, each singing in strong, forceful, beautiful tones, each telling a story in Spanish we didn’t need to understand to admire and enjoy. It was forceful, beautiful, a show of hidden talent, and a delightful experience. Pavel said many will get up and sing or dance, if someone gets them started. My Sunshine song, even without the singing talent, was able to accomplish that for them.
Guests that day ranged from the 70s to 102; Pavel said most are at least at the start of Alzheimer’s or dementia. He brings students from the local elementary school twice a week to interact with them, either playing chess, coloring, or simply talking with them.
One 92-year old presented us with handmade fans the seniors had fashioned from cut up cardboard boxes and covered with beautiful pictures from magazines; all shared smiles, laughter, hugs, kisses and fond farewells as we took our leave.
A few of us wanted to go back the next day. But we learned the Center was closed. There was no water to quench dry palates that day. Guess communism doesn’t always cover everything.