And Then We Danced

I’ve been going to the day program for senior citizens here in town for almost a year. We chat, I lead seated exercises, then we do a guided meditation. I have come to love these “abuelitos” dearly. So I was thrown for a loop last month when the director told me the program was being shut down.

Hogar de Cristo, the sponsoring organization, is doing some restructuring and, unfortunately, this program was one of the ones they decided to end. They are pulling back resources from the area around the capital and sending them to programs in the remoter regions of the country, where life is typically a bit harder. I’m no stranger to nonprofit management. I know that you can’t do everything for everyone. But dang it, I’m attached to these folks. The social services and social interaction they received in this program are crucial to their well-being and I am worried about what will happen to them now.

Two young children do the Chilean national dance at a senior citizen day program

Doing the Chilean national dance

Since the closure was confirmed, I tried to spend more time at the center. The abuelitos love our kids. We went as a family for the national holiday a few weeks ago, and they got a kick out of the kids’ dancing.

On Tuesday, there was a little ceremony with the participants, family members, staff, volunteers, and some senior management from Hogar de Cristo. Chileans do love a good speech, and there were six or seven to enjoy that day.

On Wednesday, the very last day for the seniors to spend at the center, they did a special lunch and then a gentleman came to sing rancheras, a style of music much beloved by the old folks. Pretty soon Juan, Willy, and Victor were out on the dance floor with different partners – myself included.

I couldn’t help but smile as we shuffled and waltzed along.

I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that this program is ending. I have felt sad, disillusioned, angry… frustrated. Some of the abuelitos have openly expressed their discontent with the closure. But for the most part they are taking it in stride.

Think about how many transitions they’ve had to go through in their lives. Goodbyes they’ve said. Homes they’ve left. Jobs that have changed. A world that has changed.

Just here in Chile – they lived through massive earthquakes in 1960, 1985, 2010. They made it through a military coup and the darkest days of the Pinochet dictatorship. Aside from these large-scale events, each of them has had to face the innumerable challenges of living in poverty on a daily basis, for 70 or 80 years. And yet they get up every day and go about their lives. What else can you do?

Dancing to rancheras

So that day, we cried a bit. We packed up the food that was left in the kitchen and passed it out to the abuelitos along with the center’s old mugs, so they could remember all the cups of tea they drank together. We ate some cake.

And then we danced. Because sometimes that’s all there is left to do.

Words Fail Me

The kids have been out of school for 71 days. We have 16 more days of “summer fun” before classes start up again. That’s all I will say.

I was at the Hogar de Cristo senior center on Tuesday when an earthquake happened. It was a small temblor, but it lasted a decent amount of time. Long enough for us to have a debate about whether we should get out of the building or stay put.

We had finished the exercises and stretching portion of the class and were just starting the guided meditation. Nothing like an earthquake to shatter a sense of calm. As I sat with them, I reflected (not for the first time) on what these folks have seen in their lives. They have a healthy fear of earthquakes because they’ve lived through two of the worst: the 1960 quake in Valdivia (magnitude 9.5; strongest earthquake ever recorded) and the 2010 earthquake in the central zone (magnitude 8.8; this one actually knocked the earth off its axis slightly). When the ground starts shaking, they take it seriously.

I found my vocabulary somewhat wanting while trying to calm them down. I said something along the lines of, “Calm down, it’s over” — which was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Because I don’t know what I’m talking about. They looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and dismissal. I’m just a young person from another country. I have no idea what Chilean earthquakes can do. I could be more precise in English, I’m sure.

This is a common theme in my work with the abuelitos. I frequently convey less than the full meaning of what I’m trying to say because my Spanish is okay — but not great.

Leading them in exercises is challenging due to the fact that there are so many different abilities in the room. Some are able-bodied; others are in wheelchairs. There are several blind gentleman, and two adorable ladies who are profoundly hard of hearing. Several are in the early stages of dementia. Many have diabetes. Arthritis is common. Depression, I suspect, is the thread uniting most of them.

I do the best I can. When I don’t know exactly the right word to describe a movement, I show them. Then I remember the guys who can’t see, and I try to find the words. When that fails, I ask permission to help them move their arms or legs in the right way. Then I remember the ladies who can’t hear, and I go over and show them again. Then I realize that the lady with Alzheimer’s isn’t quite sure what she’s doing in the room. And so it goes.

They accept my limitations. I accept theirs. We smile. We get on with it.

Peace at the End

Happy new year! We had a wonderful Christmas and New Year celebration with visiting family. It’s funny, but we agree that this feels more like “home” now that we’ve hosted visitors from the US.

I have been going to a day center for older adults in Talagante weekly for the past few months. Run by Hogar de Cristo, the center serves a few dozen seniors who come on a regular schedule — some come every weekday, while others come only a few days per week. I’ve been doing gentle seated exercises with them (using a fantastic resource called Sit and Be Fit) as well as guided meditation and relaxation exercises. Just a few small things to aid physical and mental well being.

Let me put it simply: I love these abuelitos.

I was sad today when Isabel, one of the program staff, told me that one of the abuelitos had died a few days ago. He was part of a group of guys (really nice guys) who hung out back in the garden and didn’t really come inside for activities. Isabel said that the Hogar de Cristo staff were the ones who actually took him to the hospital, but once he was there his family descended and stayed by his side until the end. She said that his ex-wife even came to see him, and he asked her for forgiveness. I did not know him well at all. But hearing that he was surrounded by family and truly at peace made me glad for him.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death. I think he was with Don Orlando earlier this week. May he rest in peace.