Friday, August 22, 2014

Cuba’s “Sandwich Generation” - Looking after the Sick and Elderly

Cuba's "Sandwich Generation": Looking after the Sick and Elderly
August 21, 2014
Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — For six years, I lived with two elderly women (my
grandmother and her sister). It was the saddest time in my life that I
can recall.

The Special Period crisis had hit us hard and we didn't have the
conditions needed to care for them at home. I remembered that time some
days ago when I heard about Elvira, an accountant who quit her job as an
accountant at a State company a year ago. Why did she quit her job? She
lives with her elderly parents and a brother who's ill. Her situation is
all the more complex because Elvira has a teenage son, now in high school.

Elvira's situation is far from unique. It is in fact quite common.
Several months ago, her father fractured his right hip and had a
dangerous accident. To be with him during the surgery and part of the
recovery process, she asked to be given a 3-month, unpaid leave at work.

After that time, she returned to work. Her kid (as tends to happen) has
been ill several times. Such "trivial" things have forced her to stay at
home more than once. Elvira's brother has been battling with lung cancer
for a long time. When he started to experience severe pain, she, already
working miracles to put in her time at work and care for her family, had
no choice but to tender her resignation at work (there was no other
option after having been away for three months).

When she found herself without a job, she thought she'd go mad. Luckily,
she had some training in "roughing it." What was once a way of making a
little extra money every month has now become the family's sole income.
In the little free time she has, she does laundry work and tutors small
kids in the neighborhood.

Elvira is a member of what some call the "sandwich generation": she is
responsible for the physical and emotional care of people of different
ages and supports her family financially.

The phrase was coined in the 1980s. It refers to those caught in the
middle, having to care for small children and elderly or sick relatives.
Its range of meanings has broadened over time and it is now also used to
refer to parents whose children have become adults but not moved away
from home.

The term isn't heard much today in Cuba, perhaps because, in our
country, it is nearly impossible to live any other way, and this because
of the unending housing problem, which forces several generations to
live under the same roof. The country's measly salaries make it next to
impossible for people to rent out a place for themselves or to pay
someone to look after the relatives in need.

Another important factor is the overprotectiveness that characterizes
Cuban mothers. Even though some men are in this situation, the group of
people who care for others is made up chiefly of women.

Who in Cuba does not know someone in Elvira's situation? Most of the
time, the male in these families only concerns himself with the
household finances. Social pressure generally compels women to look
after the ill, children and elderly people on both sides of the family.
This is ingrained in women to such an extent that many have taken on
this role as though it were their natural lot in life. They have been
educated in this fashion and they take on the commitment without anyone
asking them to do so.

Since teenagers don't work, they have to be supported by their parents
while at school – the State stipend some of them receive isn't even
enough for a snack. Things are slightly more flexible now and some can
earn a bit of money helping out a self-employed worker or at
privately-run establishments. If teenagers have kids of their own,
parents also have to look after these new additions to the family.

The age of "sandwiches" oscillates between 30 and 55. They shoulder a
double or triple burden which, consisting of familiar, daily chores, is
ignored by the majority. Given Cuba's characteristics, it matters little
whether someone has to look out for one or more persons – the ups and
downs one faces in any such situation, be it looking after two small
children or an elderly woman, is already a lot to shoulder. In addition
to meeting their responsibilities at work, those who care for others
must work miracles to fulfill their roles as parents, children and
partners. It is an immense daily challenge that causes great emotional
stress and gradually takes its toll on them.

One of the important issues addressed by gender studies is the huge work
load women have, the combination of the work they do in their jobs and
the unpaid work they do around the house. The law guarantees a maternity
leave during pregnancy and for a year after giving birth. Fathers can
also request a paternity leave to look after a newborn, but the number
of men who do this is infinitesimal.

When one's child is ill, one can think only about their recovery.
Mothers know they will not lose their jobs while looking after their
sick child, but they will not be paid the days they are absent from work.

A child's illness, save in special cases, is normally temporary. The
care of elderly people, however, spreads out over much more time.

We have been hearing about population aging and its consequences in Cuba
for decades. Life expectancy is now at 78, and the generation that has
to care for the elderly sees its professional life hanging by a thread.
How can we lighten these people's burden, from the legal, social and
family points of view?

As placing the elderly in homes is foreign to Cuban culture, whenever
someone mentions that a parent is in home, the accusatory comments come
immediately. Things could of course change – it is just a question of
getting used to new things. But, how can we even suggest this, when most
old people's homes in Cuba are in a deplorable state? The food is bad,
the rooms are dirty, the nurses are lousy, not to mention how difficult
it is to actually find one of these places.

Cuba's welfare program helps elderly men and women who live alone. The
State pays someone a monthly salary for feeding, cleaning after and
keeping the elderly company. However, those who live with at least one
relative are not entitled to this.

At this point, when more than 18% of the population is over 60, and we
find no legislation designed specifically to assist the "sandwich
generation" or any caregiver. No one is entitled to request a leave from
work to look after their elderly parents. The option now is a short,
unpaid leave (the new Labor Law that recently came into effect envisages
leaves as long as a year, depending on the employer), and then quitting
one's job.

People's salaries aren't enough to live on and, without enough time to
secure a steady income, it is next to impossible to support a family. Is
this or this not a serious problem? One has to work in order to support
oneself, but one can't turn one's back on the elderly: there are not
enough care centers to look after them, public transportation makes
getting to work and arriving home on time to prepare meals and
administer medications extremely difficult.

To say nothing of the high prices of disposable diapers for adults and
food products in general, or the fact it is impossible to purchase
wheelchairs, Fowler beds, bedpans, anti-bedsore mattresses and other
necessary items, not only because the State does not sell these, but
also because, when someone who's selling these turns up, the prices are
simply harrowing.

In Cuba, caught in a permanent economic crisis, there are more and more
"sandwiches" and caregivers. Faced with this situation, many people ask:
how are we to pay so many people who are unable to hold a job? The
matter must be poured over, acknowledged, and studied from different
perspectives, in order to look for alternatives. To date, however, not a
single Round Table program on Cuban television has devoted any time to it.

Source: Cuba's "Sandwich Generation": Looking after the Sick and Elderly
- Havana -

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