Beyond the beach and sun

Spring 2003

Psychotherapist Gillian Woodward reports from the new University of the Older Adult

The recently founded Universidad del Adulto Mayor is making an important contribution to the “Battle of Ideas” in Cuba. During my third visit to Cuba, through the Co-odinator, psychologist Teresa Orosa whom I met on the solidarity brigade in December ’99 (see article Cuba Si Spring 2000) I was invited to attend the weekly seminars and the International Workshop held in the psychology department of Havana University last this year. This experience was both of interest to me professional as a psychotherapist and a great pleasure.

Background and Context

Like many societies Cuba has an ageing population, largely due to the improved life expectancy since the revolution, now 76 years for women and 75 for men. At the UN conference on age in 1999 it was estimated that currently 14% of Cubans are over 70 and this will increase to 25% by the year 2035. Only 1% live in homes, 9% on their own and 90% still live with family.

Several factors influenced the decision to found a 3rd Age university. The issues and needs arising from an ageing population are world wide but insufficient attention and resources are going into this area. Even the UN is perceived as not making it a high enough priority. In Cuba there were already a number of initiatives, a movement for retired and pensioned people largely co-ordinated by the directors of the retired sections of Trades Unions working together within the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC); initiatives such as cultural and sports activities and significant social integration through organised voluntary projects in different institutions including schools and former workplaces where the maturity of expertise is considered invaluable. and has filled many skills gaps. There are also “Circulos de Abuelos” (Grandparents’ Circles) in most communities.

The hugely important familial/social role of grandparents, as was evident in the case of the kidnap of Eliane in 1999, cannot be over-estimated especially when the majority of cuban parents are working. One grown up child of an exile in Miami once said, “Homesickness is not being able to visit your grandmother’s grave”. However it was felt by agencies concerned that these social spaces alone were not enough for the full development of the older adult and in 2001 the Universidad del Adulto Mayor(UAM) was set up under the co-auspices of the Movimiento de Jubilados y Pensionados (Movement for Retired People and Pensioners) in the CTC (in the city of Havana alone there are more than 23,000 unionised retirees), the Asociacion de Pedagogos de Cuba and Havana University. The university is part of the Catedra Universitaria del Adulto Mayor and is supported by more than 45 institutions including all the Ministries and organisations such as the National federation on Women, the Association of Combatants for the Revolution, ICAP and the Association of Latin American and Caribbean Countries. There are already 21 of these universities, in all the provinces of Cuba, the most systematically organised national age initiative in Latin America. The Co-ordinator, Teresa Orosa Fraiz is a Master of Science in the Psychology of Education, lecturer in the Faculty of Psychology , and President of the Catedra and the UAM in the University of Havana. The group of participants I observed were all unionised but in principle the UAMs are open to non-unionised older people.

Objectives and Themes

The thinking behind the UAM incorporates many of the humanistic principles promoted by Antonio Mella to support workers’ struggles, and Che Guevarra. It celebrates the ideas of the Historical-Cultural School of the Russian, LS Vigotsky which honours old age as an authentic stage of human development with its own psycho-social processes and needs. Vigotsky always stressed the impact of social circumstances on development, both in the infant and the older person and insists that there are new systems of activity and communication. Interaction with the ‘Other’ is paramount in empowering this development. Too few Psychologists, in Teresa’s view, have paid attention to this stage of development. Even those who do such as Erikson and Mazlow, concentrate on the aspects of loss and preparation for death. It is time, says Teresa, we took seriously what the immense experience and maturity of older adults have to offer society.

The overall purposes of the UAM are both for and about the older person. It aims to impart sufficient knowledge to keep older people in touch with contemporary developments and to enable them to take an active part in the construction of their society. As is plain from the title of my earlier article; You Don’t Sit in a Rocking Chair when you’ve Built a Revolution (1999) many older people have an especially strong need to to have a social-political role because of an unusually powerfully influential revolutionary history. The other part of the project, about older people, is equally important: the UAM is also a pedagogical project based on ‘educational gerontolgy’, a vital enterprise of research into the learning processes of the older person.

It is worth quoting the stated objectives in full as they encapsulate the spirit of the UAM;

n to contribute to the creation of a new culture of ageing which considers the third age as a stage of human development, in which can unfold numerous potentials for learning and contributing to society.

n to achieve cultural, scientific and technical proficiency in older people in keeping with the advances of technology, art, culture and current thinking

n to strengthen the exchange between 3rd Age groups in Cuba and abroad.

n to research the pedagogical methods of the UAM and to design a curriculum which satisfies the needs of older adults from different educational levels and social backgrounds

n to identify leisure projects available to older adults in Cuba

n to promote programmes for the solution of problems of cultural development in terms of global sustainability.

n to understand the characteristics of the process of ageing which will facilitate harmonious relations with peers, family, the community, and workplace and create spaces for the exchange of experience and social support.

n collaborate in the protection of the environment for the security of the planet and the construction of a better world for all.


The group I observed , enrolled in the Psychology department of Havana University, numbered 40 with an average age of 68. It was a lively, highly articulate group and one of the first things which struck me was the high proportion of black students. One suggested that was because, despite the egalitarian aims of the revolution, for many this was the first real opportunity to attend university.

As one of the characteristics of the learning process in older people, already identified by Teresa and colleagues, is a highly individuated approach, it was decided that each participant should belong to a base ‘family’ group of 6-7 individuals and that equal time should be given to input and discussion in plenary and in the smaller groups. It was also recognised that sometimes older people absorb information more slowly so the small groups were essential as a forum for both questions and self expression. Naturally there was a lot of socialising during the merienda (break) and before the seminar. The teachers and speakers were eminent in their field and contributed voluntarily. Some of the themes were; social security systems in Cuba, (social or ‘human security’ is regarded as the basis of the progress of the revolution); contemporary culture including a session on Psychoballet, a form of therapy based on the rigour of ballet; the thinking of Jose Marti; health; use of time etc.

At the end of the course each student filled out a questionnaire (one of the research tools) covering areas such as different kinds of memory; different intelligences, changes they’d noticed in themselves etc, and produced a piece of work based on something they’d learnt during the course.

The International 2 day Workshop, the first of its kind, was part of a longer geriatric and gerontological conference which took place in May, near the end of the course. It was attended by 130 delegates from different parts of Cuba, and from Italy, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and England. The conference theme was ‘ The reinsertion of the Older Adult into Society’. The older constituency was regarded as a serious political force. There were a tremendous number of inputs but two in particular caught my attention; one on the psychological crisis of ageing and retirement which the speaker compared to the enormity of the life transition for an adolescent except that there is the challenge of the negative perceptions of self and others particularly regarding being non-productive, a value perhaps over-valued by socialist and capitalist society alike. The most common myths about older people were that;

n they don’t fall in love/enjoy sex ( a lot of derisive laughter from the audience here)

n they are a burden

n they are unproductive

n they always have medical problems

n they can’t learn

n they’re always forgetful

n they can’t enjoy life

It was agreed we all have a long way to go: families in particular need re-educating, and both society and the individual must take responsibility for bringing about a positive in self and others’ perceptions of the older person. The representatives from the National Tourist Board described an interesting partnership with the CTC to promote activities for older people ‘beyond beach and sun’, activities which would be intellectually demanding and which would facilitate personal growth.

The enthusiasm in the plenary brought ideas for action such as more computer training, spreading the universities to all municipalities, increased international co-operation, a web page and family re-education. The grand finale was a magnificent performance by a troupe of older women depicting the history of Cuba through the development of dance and conference delegates joined together to dance as a long line out of the hall.

At the final seminar I was able to attend, in response to my thank you speech, one of the students said she was glad I “had been able to witness both the joy and suffering” of Cuban people and one of Teresa’s last comments was that “many people love us, but not so many really get to know us”.

Gillian Woodward MSc is a Psychotherapist. She will be return- ing to Havana in the autumn and has been invited to run workshops on Counselling and Psychodrama for the University and the Dept. of Health.

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