Living Hope Newsletter – September 2018
Feed the Hungry: Mercy has the face of the elderly
The country of Cuba holds special meaning to all Claretians. It was here that Archbishop Saint Anthony Mary Claret unfurled a deep and untiring evangelizing work only 20 days after the founding of the Claretians’ congregation. Although the work is often difficult, the Claretians remain committed to seeing the world through the eyes of the poor in every country where they serve.
Cuba is a country with drastically changing demographics. Some 18.3 percent of the island’s 11.1 million people are over the age of 60, with that figure expected to rise to 30 percent by 2030, making Cuba’s population the oldest country in the Americas. In recent years, the solidarity of families has been helped by grandparents playing a decisive role in domestic and social stability by keeping families together, even as all generations are dealing with economic and social crisis. “You are able to notice this when you walk through the streets and visits families, rarely is there a household in which there is no elderly individual,” explained Br. Manolo Pliego, C.M.F.
Increasingly now, however, one of the island’s main problems is that the people who emigrate are generally the youngest, in the prime of their productive and reproductive lives. “The elderly no longer migrate as in the past, and in many cases their families have been forced to leave them under the protection of the State or the Catholic Church,” said Br. Pliego.
In the face of this reality, Claretians from the Parish of the Holy Trinity in Santiago de Cuba began a ministry program for the elderly to be accompanied as they are helped, creating links of solidarity in the face of so much vulnerability, loneliness, and abandonment. “We have a program called the Dining Room for the elderly and it gives assistance four days a week,” explained Br. Pliego. “The economic sustainability comes through the help of the Archbishopric of Santiago de Cuba.”
Over 100 elderly individuals are served each day by the Claretians in the second-largest city of Cuba and the capital city of Santiago de Cuba Province. Arístides, 92, arrives daily at the Dining Room. She has a pension of 200 pesos ($8 dollars) and the food she receives in the Dining Room helps her to live because her pension is insufficient to even begin to cover her basic needs.
Carlos, 80, arrives at the Dining Room everyday pushing his heavy cart. When he leaves, in his cart he carries food for four elderly people who are bedridden with disabilities. “His work of solidarity is remarkable and is punctual to carry food to these elderly people who do not have anyone who can come to assist them,” said Br. Pliego. “The streets are in poor condition and Carlos has difficulty moving his cart, but he has carried food to the needy since we started without missing a single day.”
The Dining Room for the elderly functions thanks to a team of volunteers. The program works with a group of twenty-two lay volunteers, divided into four working groups; these are responsible for cooking, serving, and cleaning. “We encourage the commitment of solidarity by the parish community,” said Br. Pliego.
“They are called to share their time, always and preferentially with the poorest and neediest of this vulnerable sector of our parish community, which are the elderly.” The program has been operating since 2012 and the number of volunteers continues to grow.
Another of the Claretian services for the elderly are Tai Chi exercise classes, which are guided and accompanied by a Lay Claretian volunteer. “This activity enables the elderly to improve their physical and spiritual health, and it is open to other elderly individuals who are not beneficiaries of the Dining Room,” explained Br. Pliego. The Claretians also organize leisure activities for he elderly every two months, including excursions to the beach and recreational activities.
The number of Cubans leaving their country has increased steadily in recent years, according to government reports, reaching levels not seen since 1994 when tens of thousands took to the sea in makeshift rafts and rickety boats. The figures are not good news for a government facing a demographic crisis similar to some developed countries where fewer young people must support a growing elderly population.
“Migration is one of the causes that have facilitated many elderlies to reach this situation of so much need, as well as the aging of Cuban society,” explained Br. Pliego. “But I also think that society doesn’t set aside dignified places for those who are no longer producers, which are the elderly. They find themselves in a dead end along with the poor of this world.
“This is our community, the Dining Room family,” said Br. Pliego. “Each day we meet and share tenderness, solidarity, as well as time to reflect.” The Claretians in Cuba continue to strive to respond to the most urgent and timely needs of the people in their communities, using all means possible to care for the spiritual and material needs of others—especially the elderly—in Santiago de Cuba.