Without retirement and health insurance, some seniors are living in hell
This Wednesday, June 22, 2022, Marie-Ange Auguste sold half of the eggs she had brought in her basket. There are only six left. She leaves them at the bottom of an aluminum bowl on top of a small bucket filled with peanut butter. “I don’t have any cassava this morning,” the sixty-year-old tells a customer who then settles for a banana costing 35 gourdes (about USD $0.30).
Sitting on a small bench which she lugs around with her, Auguste takes advantage of the departure of her customer to catch her breath a little. “I can’t take it anymore, she confides, while grimacing. My knees are swollen from walking every day.”
Marie-Ange Auguste, 64 years old, does not remember how long she has been a street vendor of figs and hard-boiled eggs (a common breakfast staple offered among street vendors in Haiti). She only knows that her hair was not yet all gray and that she still had the stamina of a young woman.
With her makeshift basket on her head and with heavy steps, it is almost noon when Marie-Ange Auguste decides to end her break. Schools having already shut their doors, Auguste is unsure of her clientele for the day. But her agenda is still very full. “At two o’clock in the afternoon, she says, I’ll go buy bananas in Pétion-Ville. Around four o’clock, I will go to Poste Marchand to pick-up bread”.
By the time she gets home, it will be six o’clock. A good thing, she says through a burst of laughter, since the previous night’s rain soaked her bed. “It will have time to dry before I throw my exhausted body onto it,” she sighs.
Monday through Friday, Marie-Ange Auguste leaves her house at five-thirty in the morning and returns around six in the evening. Sometimes her sales are not so good, but she does manage to move at least a good part of her merchandise along Avenue John Brown.
At her age, Auguste should have already been retired. But the lack of a clear State policy favoring senior citizens prevents them from enjoying the rest of their lives in peace. She also has no children to take care of her, in a country where family takes care of the elderly. Which is just what sociologist Danièle Magloire describes. “Given the way we live, in general, the elderly are taken care of by their progeny. This is largely based on the person with the most availability. And when direct descendants are not present to provide care, those with the means hire help.”
There are almost no retirement homes either and those that exist are very expensive.
According to Danièle Magloire, this is not a social order that we are familiar with. “In Haitian practice, there are extremely important family ties. Elderly parents live with their children, and even when some grandparents live in their own homes, their descendants are constantly present.”
In addition, the retirement homes that are available are not dispersed throughout the country. “They are all located in the western department, criticizes the sociologist. Therefore, the majority of the population does not have access to them.”
Illness is another calamity for which older people generally have little help.
“Sometimes, after a certain age, people develop chronic degenerative diseases. These diseases will cause complications. And in turn, these complications will reduce the functional capacities of said people,” explains Jean-Claude Desgranges, a geriatrician, that is a doctor who specializes in the illnesses of the elderly.
It is their children or, worst case scenario, their siblings, who take care of them as best they can.
When she suffered a stroke back in March 2022, Renette Lavéus went to live with her son, Charlito Léger, in Delmas 31 (a borough of Port-au-Prince). She was a charcoal merchant in Croix-des-Bossales (the largest market in Haiti, located in downtown Port-au-Prince) until December 2021.
At 63 years old, she was doing very well, until bandits attacked her near the marché Hyppolite (also known as the Marché en Fer, or the Iron Market). After fleeing her home in Martissant, the latter was the straw which broke the camels back, triggering a stroke.
Similarly, Clairicia Israël, a former coffee vendor at the carrefour Péan, enjoyed good health even as she crossed the 70 year mark. Only her hands were shaking. But in 2020, a hypertensive crisis and then a stroke left her bedridden.
In both cases, for Israël and Lavéus, it is their mother-in-law who takes care of them. According to Alain Jean, this is often the case. “Not only is the work of caring for the elderly not highly sought-after,” the sociologist and professor at l’Université d’État d’Haïti (or the State University of Haiti) points out, “it is essentially a female job. Specifically, a task reserved for wives or women with a precarious economic situation.”
Alain Jean blames the social structure for this outcome. “There is a social division of labor where certain roles and tasks are assigned to women and others to men. They are the least well paid and socially valued.”
However, an older person does not have to lose her abilities, either physical or mental. This is a misguided belief. “Old age is not a disease,” warns Desgranges. That’s why he created la Fondation du troisième âge (or the Old Age Foundation) in 2014. “The objective, he explains, is to make concepts surrounding old age more accessible, to raise awareness on the opportunities for accompanying the elderly, and to establish, not retirement homes, but homes for the elderly in the west, north, and southern departments.”
The difference here is that the elderly reside in the so-called retirement homes, while their offspring pick them up at the end of the day in said homes. But for now, this is just a project.
With every day that passes, Marie-Ange Auguste is less and less certain of her future. Both diabetic and hypertensive, her body can no longer cope with the level of fatigue to which it is subject to daily. She is well aware of this, but has no one to count on, she explains.
August promises to go see a doctor before the end of the week. But she has already made up her mind. “If the doctor prescribes rest, she says, I will listen to him. I may rest a week. However, it is out of the question that I be barred from going about my activities.”
If she gives up her business, Auguste fears she will no longer be able to support herself. With no one to buy her even a single pill in case she can’t get out of bed, she relies on the good faith of her church leader. She believes that “the pastor and his wife will have no problem with me staying in the church until I feel better.”
English translation by Didenique Jocelyn.