Puerto Rico in need of peo­ple

The is­land’s young peo­ple flee, leav­ing the elderly to face a long, slow re­build­ing process.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - People - By JIM WYSS

A FEW weeks af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria flooded his north­ern Puerto Ri­can ham­let of Me­dia Luna, Al­berto Cabr­era was shov­el­ling rank mud and twisted de­bris out of a neigh­bour’s house.

At 60 years old, Cabr­era said he had a duty to help those around him: He’s the youngest per­son in the vil­lage.

Even be­fore the mon­ster storm hit this is­land of 3.4 mil­lion, Puerto Rico was age­ing at a break­neck pace. A decade-long re­ces­sion and 10% un­em­ploy­ment forced droves of young peo­ple to flee the is­land to seek work on the main­land.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2016 study pub­lished by the Puerto Ri­can gov­ern­ment, 23.3% of the pop­u­la­tion is over 60 years old. That’s higher than any coun­try in the Caribbean or Latin Amer­ica, ex­cept for the US Vir­gin Is­lands, a re­tire­ment hotspot.

While Puerto Rico’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion de­creased by al­most 200,000 peo­ple be­tween 2010 and 2014, the pop­u­la­tion over 60 rose by al­most 250,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the US Cen­sus Bu­reau.

And that trend has likely kicked into over­drive af­ter Maria.

Hunter Col­lege’s Cen­ter for Puerto Ri­can Stud­ies es­ti­mates the is­land will lose a star­tling 14% of its pop­u­la­tion be­tween 2017 and 2019. That’s 470,335 res­i­dents gone, most of them work­ing-age adults. Many are ex­pected to head to Florida.

“In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same pop­u­la­tion in a span of a cou­ple of years af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria as the is­land lost dur­ing a prior decade of eco­nomic stag­na­tion,” the Hunter Col­lege re­searchers said. “Our pro­jec­tions in­di­cate that Florida is the state most likely to be af­fected by the ex­o­dus – with an es­ti­mated an­nual flow of be­tween 40,000 and 82,000 peo­ple.”

That means the is­land’s se­niors will in­creas­ingly have to fend for them­selves.

More than a month af­ter Maria, many of Puerto Rico’s older res­i­dents re­main phys­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally stranded, said Jose Acaron, the Puerto Rico di­rec­tor for AARP, for­merly the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Re­tired Per­sons.

About three-quar­ters of the is­land is still with­out power, and that’s cre­ated a dizzy­ing ar­ray of ob­sta­cles.

With banks and ATMs out of com­mis­sion, se­niors aren’t able to ac­cess their So­cial Se­cu­rity funds. Dead traf­fic lights have turned roads into hellish ob­sta­cle cour­ses that are in­tim­i­dat­ing to even the most agile driv­ers. And then there are those who are trapped in apart­ment blocs with use­less el­e­va­tors and who can’t get up and down stairs.

“If there’s any­thing pos­i­tive about this hur­ri­cane, it’s that it has pulled back the cur­tain on just how vul­ner­a­ble the age­ing pop­u­la­tion is,” Acaron said. “A hur­ri­cane has so many ram­i­fi­ca­tions that peo­ple just don’t think about.”

One of the chal­lenges of reach­ing Puerto Ri­can se­niors is that just 2% live in el­der care fa­cil­i­ties or re­tire­ment com­mu­ni­ties. The vast ma­jor­ity are scat­tered across the is­land, re­ly­ing on fam­ily and friends.

Me­dia Luna is a prime ex­am­ple. As Cabr­era was help­ing clean out the house of his 93-year-old neigh­bor, his wife, Aurea Gon­za­lez, 62, had be­come the un­of­fi­cial care­taker of their 66-year-old neigh­bour, who lost all of his blood pres­sure med­i­ca­tion in the flood and was hav­ing trou­ble walk­ing.

Aurea said mem­bers of the com­mu­nity – a smat­ter­ing of about 20 homes in a ru­ral re­gion of Toa Baja – have to take care of each other be­cause all the young peo­ple have left to find work. She has chil­dren in Florida and Texas.

“It’s the young peo­ple who are mi­grat­ing,” she ex­plained. “Us older peo­ple, we don’t speak English and some of us don’t even know how to write. There would be no work for us, or any­thing, up there.”

It’s un­clear how long it will take for Puerto Rico’s in­fra­struc­ture to be se­nior-ready again.

Edgardo Gar­cia is the owner of Life Se­nior Care Cen­ter in Gurabo, on the east­ern part of the is­land, which was home to 102 peo­ple. The day be­fore the storm hit, Gar­cia said he was feel­ing wor­ried and anx­ious and, in what many told him was an ex­cess of cau­tion, he moved 32 of his most frag­ile pa­tients to a mu­nic­i­pal shel­ter and sent the rest home with fam­ily.

It was a smart de­ci­sion. The cen­tre was flooded with four feet of wa­ter, part of the roof was torn off and a wall col­lapsed.

“We saved 102 se­niors,” Gar­cia said. “It could have been cat­a­strophic and I would prob­a­bly be in jail, but thank God we were proac­tive.”

Over the course of the next few weeks, he moved the evac­uees from one shel­ter to an­other, but the is­land’s to­tal break­down in com­mu­ni­ca­tion meant they weren’t get­ting they sup­plies they needed. He even­tu­ally had to put some of his clients into other, un­dam­aged, nurs­ing homes.

Gar­cia is try­ing to re­build, but he says he’s been strug­gling to find con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als. He’s also try­ing to raise money to buy so­lar pan­els and bat­ter­ies be­cause it could take as long as a year for mu­nic­i­pal power to be re­stored in his re­gion.

What may be harder to re­pair is the ecosys­tem of ser­vice providers – phar­ma­cists, nurses, phys­i­cal and res­pi­ra­tory ther­a­pists – that his cen­tre and the elderly rely on. Many of those pro­fes­sion­als, he said, will be tempted to head to the United States.

Back in Me­dia Luna, Cabr­era said his chil­dren have tried to get him to move to the main­land, but he’s not leav­ing the vil­lage where his fam­ily has been for three gen­er­a­tions.

As a group of young men drove by the town gawk­ing at the dam­age, Cabr­era yelled af­ter them, “We need peo­ple! We need your hands!”

The car didn’t slow down. – Mi­ami Her­ald/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

Al­berto Cabr­era, 60, is the youngest per­son in Me­dia Luna, Puerto Rico. Here he takes a break af­ter help­ing clean out the dam­aged house of a 93-year-old neigh­bour. — Pho­tos: TNS

Aurea Gon­za­lez, 62, in­spects dam­age to her house in Me­dia Luna af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria hit last Septem­ber.

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