Neighborhoods that "feel warmer and more communal than those in many other nations." An artistic community that "is consistently dazzling." That's how New York Times columnist David Brooks described his April trip to Cuba with the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
Brooks writes about seeing "a radiating joy" emanating from the souls of Cuban musicians. I saw something else during my own recent trip to Cuba. I saw the faces of those musicians. And those faces were, in almost all cases, the faces of Cuban elders.
An Aging Cuba
When you visit Cuba you notice one thing right away: Older people are everywhere you look. That's understandable. Cuba is an aging country by global standards.
According to the United Nations' World Population Ageing 2015 report, 19 percent of the Cuban population was over age 60 in 2015. That figure is expected to reach 32 percent in 2030. That's pretty significant, no doubt about it. But what I witnessed in Cuba had little to do with longevity statistics.
Older people seem to be everywhere in Cuba because they are welcomed everywhere. Unlike citizens in other Western countries, Cubans make it very clear that their elders are an integral part of, and valued participants in, their country's cultural and social life. It's not unusual, for example, to see three generations of Cubans living together under one roof.
The country's socialized medical system places a strong emphasis on providing holistic primary care to all older adults through community-based clinics that serve elders in the neighborhoods where they live. Of course, older people are the face of Cuba's vibrant cultural life.
Older Cubans are the stars of the popular music scene. Visitors to this island nation will find 60-, 70-, and 80-year-old musicians headlining most of the performances they enjoy while traveling throughout this very musical country. That's a jarring -- and welcome -- sight to an American like me who grew up in a culture that believes successful musicians are young musicians.
A reverence for older Cubans is also a focus for the visual arts, which are experiencing a renaissance throughout the country. This reverence was powerfully evident during our meeting with a young Cienfuegos artist who carved the expressions and emotions of mountain-dwelling elders into wood for his series of moving portraits.
The Gift of Old Age
I left Cuba convinced of one indisputable truth: Cubans revere their older citizens.
They welcome elders into the life of their communities, and they are glad for their participation in that life. They make sure elders receive the services and supports they need to remain in their homes and communities. Most important, they appreciate the gifts and talents that older citizens have to offer.
Being in Cuba made me feel more comfortable about being an older adult. That's a gift I'd like to receive more often from my own country.