For a while I’d been planning on going to visit the “viejitos” and “viejitas” (grannies and grandads) at the Asilo (old people’s home) because apparently they always want people to go and see them, as many of the residents don’t get visits from their families. Last week I finally went, and even though I’d heard from some people that “it’s really depressing” etc, I didn’t find it THAT bad.
When I was about 16 I used to volunteer at a government-run elderly home near my school, and the one here didn’t appear to be much worse than that. The main difference I could see was that here, there are only two bedrooms (well like dorms)… one for the boys and one for the girls. Each one has about 15 beds in it, and there’s a small shelf behind each bed, so each resident doesn’t have much personal space or space to put their belongings, and I imagine they get woken up when each other go to the toilet etc in the night because the beds are quite close together.
Another difference is that in England when I volunteered, it was all very official and the staff at the home knew what time I’d arrive so they could let me in, and I had to sign in in the book etc. Here however, I just walked in from the street because the gate was open, and I hadn’t told anyone I’d be going there. There was no reception or anything, I just walked straight into the living room area and started speaking to the residents. I guess it wouldn’t be too serious if one of them did run away though, because the island is small so they could be found easily.
The similarities are that the main entertainment is simply a TV in a room with sofas and rocking chairs etc, they get fed and washed every day, and there are sometimes games of bingo. It was explained to me that they don’t pay to stay there, but I think maybe some money gets taken out of their pensions.
I’m assuming the government in England pay for medical services for the residents, but here the medical services are proved by a charity, Floating Doctors. Without this, the residents would have to be taking regular trips to the hospital, which would be very difficult because it would leave a shortage of staff in the home if they were needed to accompany people to the hospital.
This day, I stayed around 2 hours talking to the residents, and I was there for the rehearsal of a show which had been organised by another volunteer and was due to take place about a week from then. The residents who could dance danced, and the ones who could sing rehearsed their songs. The others shook some tambourines etc. I was told the show would be at 4pm on Sunday (today), so I went this afternoon, and that’s the main point of this post. So…
I arrived at 4pm and there were about 15 people (mostly American expats) sitting down ready to watch, a volunteer ready to play the guitar through speakers, another volunteer ready to control the music coming from an iPod through the speakers, and Claudia (the volunteer organiser) giving a welcome on the microphone and talking to the residents, who were sat, some in wheelchairs, some on sofas and some on chairs, in a semi-circle armed with tambourines and maracas.
Suddenly some salsa music was played from the iPod and the grannies and grandads started shaking their instruments. I was surprised when a frail-looking granny with only one functioning eye sprung up and started dancing with a big smile on her face. She was soon joined by one of the male residents:
The first singer to take to the stage was Dimitrio, who actually played the harmonica as well:
This is Gladys, whose face lit up after she performed when she heard all the cheers from the audience, which had increased to about 30 people by this time:
Herminia sang a song about God, with so many verses that she had to read the lyrics she’d written down in her book:
This moment was very cute. Claudia explained that the woman in the white dress (I can’t remember her name) was going to sing this song, but her voice no longer works very well so Dimitrio was going to sing it for her. She was watching him intently the whole time, and by the end she had tears in her eyes. I guess the song had special significance for her:
Bella multi-tasked, enthusiastically shaking the tambourine and singing at the same time:
After the performances were over, it was time for more dancing. The audience had to stand up first and invite the old people to dance:
I definitely picked the best dancer! It was hard to keep up with him:
The Floating Doctors were all there, and they’d brought food, mainly things that are easy to chew because some of the residents don’t have that many teeth, like pasta salad and potato salad, and the all important cake:
These two “handsome residents” as Claudia said on the mic, were chosen to cut the cake.
Everyone was happy and full (I get the impression this food was a lot nicer than what they’re normally given), and then 24 cans of beer appeared out of nowhere, and not one resident turned down the offer of a can, and they definitely drank it more quickly than I would have done.
The sun was about to go down so some residents went to the dorms and some stayed outside for a bit talking to the visitors. I had an interesting conversation with a man I’d seen giving out the pills when I was in the home for the first time. I noticed that he was wearing weird clothes, kind of like a floor-length dark red skirt with a rope for a belt, and a loose white shirt and a long necklace. I kept wondering what religion it was for but had no idea.
When I asked him what he does in Bocas he told me that he’s a monk (which explains the clothes) and he’s been here for about 6 months helping out every day in the granny home because part of being a monk is doing “service”, so he’s volunteered in a lot of different countries doing similar things. He took me to the girls’ dorm to introduce me to Naomi who’s 103 years old!!! Definitely the oldest person I’ve met in my life. She called him “Chewy” and when I asked why, he explained that she loves sweets so he’s started bringing them to the home for her, and so she calls him Chewy (because sweets are chewy). When he said he was going to bring her a chocolate chewy later she let out the cutest little giggle.
I’m leaving Bocas soon but I’ll try and go back to the Asilo a few more times before I leave because it was easy to see how pleased they were to have visitors. If you come to Bocas you should definitely go there one afternoon. It’s on the road behind the hospital.