Issue - June 2009

June 2009


Inside this edition: People are considered old when certain changes occur in their activities or social roles. Usually this happens around 60 to 65 years old. In different countries people are considered part of the third age; many people said that to stay in shape and to keep active is the more...

June 2009

Asilo de Ancianos Buen Pastor: a safe haven for the elderly

Christina Moore went to the Asilo de Ancianos Buen Pastor to see in action one of the few sources of support for the elderly.

Christina Moore
Projects Abroad - Volunteer
London - United Kingdom

At 16:30 the conversation was interrupted by the ringing of a bell; “Dinner!” explained Sister Cecilia, “It is so early because most of them go to bed at half five.” She was referring to the residents of Asilo de Ancianos Buen Pastor, a home for the elderly, who are all in their seventies or older and mostly abandoned. Some have been brought in from the streets where they begged, and tragically, according to Sister Cecelia, there are cases where their families would leave them on the streets all day to beg and collect them at the end of the day. Others are brought to the home by family members who cannot cope with the emotional, physical or financial burden of caring for their elderly relative. Sometimes they say they will come back, but they rarely do. Nonetheless Sister Cecilia does not feel bitter towards the families; most of the residents have severe physical and/or mental disabilities and she knows only too well what a tough job it is to care for them. Without qualified medical staff the home is limited in how much they can take on, and she adds, “If they are really ill we cannot receive them. They have to at least be able to walk and maneuver themselves.” Having said that when we explored later it became evident that they often do not have the heart to go through with their admittance policy. The residents, who were dining in the communal hall (although they have to be divided according to gender to avoid petty disputes), greeted us cheerfully, but most were unable to join us on our walk through the beautiful gardens. Sister Cecelia told us this is particularly the case with women, “There are thirtysix, and the majority cannot walk freely without aid. Many have a deformation like a hunchback or a spinal problem like sclerosis.” Fewer of the men have such severe physical deformities; they are usually more independent and some even go out. There are also those who are so accustomed to life on the street that they never really adjust to the regulated and time-tabled structure of the home, and choose to return to the streets. Sister Cecelia recalls one man who “could not accustom himself; he wanted to live with us but continue to go out begging. We refused to tolerate that so he left.”

The staff total is roughly ten, including two cleaners, two kitchen staff, a doorman, a driver, and somebody who sleeps there. Sister Cecelia points out this is not enough for seventy residents, especially as they are afflicted not only the majority have endured difficult lives, but also conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cirrhoses and cataracts. However, the sisters are not completely alone, and Sister Cecelia gratefully describes the kindness of people who support them. A volunteer brings final year physiotherapy students three times a week. There is also a doctor who for a modest wage does basic checks two days a week, and a nurse who comes every day with prescriptions. However, she adds, “When there is a serious problem it is hard as we do not have the resources. We try to get help from other organizations or we just do what we can.” Ideally they would hire more permanent staff and qualified health professionals, but they are severely limited financially. Their only regular source of income is six or seven Bolivianos from the government per resident per day. Aside from that they receive donations of money, clothes, shoes, food and medicine from the public. “Most of what we have is given through providence - good people who know the house and bring what they can. And so like this we maintain ourselves.”

When it comes to the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of the residents, the sisters, who are from the San Carlos congregation, which has worked with the home since it was founded 125 years ago, feel better equipped. “We celebrate mass, pray and sing together. Also, we talk and interact, and give lots of affection. They do not have anyone in this life, it is only us and them.” However, Sister Cecelia admits that professional psychological support is lacking, although depression is not common among the residents. She suggests that this is because many have mental abnormalities as well as physical ones, and in addition because a lot of the medication they take has a calming effect. She also points out that, “Psychologically old people are a bit special; sometimes they are not happy and it does not matter what you do.” Some collaborate with the chores; generally the men involve themselves with duties in the garden or fixing the furniture, and the women help with the cooking. “These activities keep them going and make them feel useful,” she explains, “but others just like to sit, and we respect their decision.” Sometimes groups come to chat with the residents, or dance with them, which they love. In addition they celebrate events, such as Carnival, when they crowned their very own Carnival Queen.

The sisters at Buen Pastor have a weighty responsibility, even including arranging and paying for funerals, although sometimes coffins are donated following cremations. However, they achieve a lot. The Sister who was in charge before Sister Cecelia even managed to secure funds to remodel the home and the grounds. It is much more homely now and residents take great pride in tending to the beautifully laid out garden, complete with fruit trees and tranquil spots to enjoy the sun. Sister Cecilia moves serenely through the grounds, greeting the smiling faces by name. “Sometimes they arrive in a pitiful condition because of their life on the street. But with feeding and care they become better,” she smiles, and adds, “When you clean them sometimes they look like a different person!” Despite its challenges, Sister Cecelia enjoys her work, “I like this project; it is demanding because there is always some new problem, but you can appreciate the kindness of people. Every day is a surprise.”

Growing older, getting stronger

We are retired from the system… but we are not retired from life,” quips Gaby Vallejo Canedo, who was born in 1941. In fact she and her colleagues, who are all in their late sixties or early seventies, are so busy that they are lucky if they get one afternoon to themselves each week. They refuse to use their age as an excuse to take a rest. In 1990 the seven women founded the only children’s library in Bolivia, Biblioteca Th’uruchapitas, which has since sprouted several other projects. The projects both support and are supported by IBBY, a Swiss-based international organization for children’s and young people’s literature. Meanwhile, Gaby, who is a well-known Bolivian writer, continues to write and add to her collection of already more than thirty published books, as well as essays, studies and other publications. One of her books ‘Hijo de Opa,’ has been converted into a film, ‘Los Hermanos Cartagena’. The book covers hard-hitting themes such as institutional violence, a dictatorship and human rights; and Gaby declares that the film is even more powerful.

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