Old folks

18 May 2006
1:58 PM

This is the fourth article in the Work Week series.

After working with eight-year-olds in the girls’ foster home on Tuesday, I swing to the other end of the spectrum on Thursday. At 2:00pm, I arrive at the hogar de ancianos. The name makes me laugh because it looks like it would be translated “house of ancients.” In reality, it is a nursing home.

Nursing homes in general can be lonely places, but the circumstances of this one seem worse than usual. There are four sections: men and women live separately in either individual pensioned rooms or shared group rooms. Some residents are well-off: they have their own rooms, bathrooms, personal possessions, and their families visit them. The majority, however, live in shared rooms with eight to ten beds, use a group bathroom, and never see their families; either they don’t have anyone, or their relatives don’t visit.

During my visits I move between the shared areas for the men and women. I greet everyone individually, partly because that’s how it’s done in Chilean culture, but also to offer everyone a few moments of individual attention. Then I sit down and talk with a few people. More than talking, I listen, and this is no easy task. Listening to Spanish is hard; Chilean Spanish is worse; elderly Chilean Spanish is nearly impossible to understand. The upshot is that I rarely have to demonstrate comprehension. They hardly ever ask me questions, so I just nod. One woman has a stream-of-consciousness style that Tom Wolfe would envy. She talked for 45 minutes straight about whatever came to her mind. During that time, I alternated between enthusiastic nodding and sympathetic nodding, depending on what context I could gather.

Recently I have tried to bring more things with me because the adults sit around all day watching TV, listening to the radio, or sleeping. A couple weeks ago I brought a copy of National Geographic and showed pictures of Mt. Everest while I translated the photo captions. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the residents are interested or not.

As I become a more familiar face, the people at the nursing home have become more open with me. Jorge, the opera-singing grandpa belts out a typical (for him) operatic number whenever he sees me. Edith and I talk about her slippers—she has two pairs, both very comfortable, though she prefers the blue ones. Pedro tells me about his memories of Argentina (he wishes he were there instead of Chile). Another woman asked me to break up her food so she could eat it more easily.

A few weeks ago, one lady even approached me and said, “May I ask you a little favor?” I told her yes and she continued, “Could you get me a magnifying glass for my needlepoint work? I lost mine and when you lose things around here you don’t find them again.” The next week I returned with a magnifying glass (cost: $1.75). When I gave it to her she was visibly pleased. “Oh! You remembered, thank you. You know, I found mine the other day….” I told her that she should share her extra one with someone who needed it. Then I made a mental note to follow up on missing items before I try to replace them.

Each week at the nursing home is like a lesson in the sometime stark and unfortunate effects of aging. Some residents walk well, others less so, and others not at all. Some are nearly deaf; I shout when I talk with them. Others have abysmal dental care—just one or two teeth, sometimes horizontal instead of vertical. Some of their eyes are glazed with opaque layers, which I don’t recognize, but I imagine aren’t a good thing medically speaking. One woman, Adriana, age 89, told me, “it’s getting darker every day. It’s like there’s a cloud in front of everything. It won’t be long before I can’t see anymore.” Janet complained to me about her stomach pain one day. It’s hard for me to admit that there’s no such thing as diagnosis through osmosis—though I grew up surrounded by medical professionals, I don’t know anything to solve those problems.

After a couple of hours, it’s time for dinner and that means my exit. I say goodbye to everyone, again individually. They thank me for visiting; I tell them that I’ll see them next Thursday.