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 theĀ 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.