Breaking Stereotypes: The “Aging with Dignity” Project
As a CCS staff member, I had the opportunity to visit several work assignments during my one week service trip to Costa Rica. My colleague and Program Coordinator for CCS Cartago, Juvel, accompanied me on my first stop, a nursing home founded on the donations and efforts of the local community.
On our way to the nursing home, my mind was filled with preconceived notions about the quality of care in nursing homes; I thought about the horrible conditions and mistreatment of residents I’d read about in the states that often went unreported. I imagined I was on my way to a gloomy facility overcrowded with residents but empty in compassion. I wasn’t confident that I was emotionally ready for this visit.
When we pulled up to the nursing home, I anxiously turned to Juvel and confessed, “I’m scared to go in. I love the elderly but nursing homes make me sad. I just lost my grandma a few years ago.” Juvel received my hesitation and patiently took the time to help me sort through my feelings before we got out of the car. He explained that this nursing home puts special emphasis on making sure workers are properly trained on giving residents affection on top of their professional care. I’m not sure how much of that I believed at the time but it was enough to get me out of the car and up to the gates.
￼ When the gates opened I was surprised to see such a beautiful and clean facility. I took a quick scan of the open courtyard and one of the first things I saw was a nurse bent over, hugging one of the residents in a wheelchair. I felt a new air of relief as we began touring the facility.
Juvel began by telling me the history of the nursing home - there was a homeless man who was well known in the community and always helped with little chores and odd jobs in exchange for food. One day he got hit by a car and ended up in the hospital. When the neighbors heard about the accident, they pooled together their resources in order to make sure he had somewhere to rest after he was released from the hospital. The people of Cartago then decided they wanted to help people like him and thus began founding the nursing home. Today, the facility still operates on donations and volunteers from the community.
To my surprise, when we walked around many of the residents knew Juvel by name and greeted him with familial warmth. He introduced me as his colleague from New York and they embraced me with just as much love. Juvel also introduced me to some of the staff so I could better understand their roles and needs for future volunteers. We met a physical therapist who was in the middle of working with a resident on an elliptical. He gave me a short list of some of the services they provided and looking around him, you could see all the equipment he used with residents like free weights or mats laid out for stretching. Juvel explained that the nursing home had a comprehensive physical therapy program that is really hands on and would benefit any volunteers interested in this kind of work.
Next I got to meet one of the caretakers of the nursing home. She was in the middle of stuffing some clothes into the wash and behind her was a sea of laundry. She told me about how helpful it would be to have more volunteers and that she was happy the nursing home was building a larger laundry. She was sweet and spoke passionately about her work and the growing need for more resources.
After we chatted with the caretaker, we stopped by the cafeteria briefly so I could see where the residents ate. It was a typical cafeteria, what you would expect to find in a school or office building. We didn’t get to speak to the cook because surprisingly, there’s only one person cooking for all of the residents. It went without saying that the kitchen was another area in the nursing home that could use some extra hands, especially for volunteers looking to gain culinary experience.
To the left of the cafeteria was a small walkway that led to this beautiful, grassy area on the side of the building. I was confused because I thought the courtyard was the extent of the nursing home but here was this path perfect for taking walks or sitting out and enjoying the sun.
This was probably my favorite part of the tour because I learned about the outdoor activities available for residents for their leisure. For example, there was a chicken coop where residents could pick their own eggs to bring to the chef to cook. I thought this was an amazing way to keep residents active and involved in preparing their meals.
There was also an impressive garden of fruits and vegetables growing nearby the chicken coop. There was a tall banana tree which I really appreciated since we don’t have those back in the states.
We found a resident tending to the vegetables and I remember melting as he excitedly told us about all the work he’s been doing with the vegetables. He promptly took over Juvel’s tour and started showing me all the lettuce, onions, and herbs they were growing. He even picked Juvel and me some guava fruits for the road! It was such an endearing moment.
Residents are trying a new harvest this year: pineapples!
Onions are in abundance in the garden!
As we readied ourselves to leave the nursing home, I remember being completely baffled at how wrong my predictions were coming into the facility. In America, I think there is a shared perception of nursing homes being a very dismal place. But here, there was a genuinely good energy between residents and staff and the facility went beyond my standards. I’m glad I got to witness the love everyone seemed to have for their jobs and how important that was in making sure residents were taken care of on all ends. Juvel even told me about other initiatives like “Milk Month” in October where the nursing home collects as many donations of milk as possible to ensure proper nutrition for the residents. In December, families and even organizations and schools can “adopt” a resident to make sure they are well visited and not alone during the holidays.
Ultimately, I want to share why I felt so compelled to write this blog and it is because of this:
I consider myself completely open to new experiences but had I let my fears stop me from walking into those gates, I would have missed the opportunity to break my own ignorance. I stereotyped the level of compassion you could find at a nursing home when I should have been seeking that humanness instead. I believe that in a world filled with so much negativity, we should celebrate compassion when we find it and invite others to share in our experience.
And so, if ever you find yourself signed up for CCS Costa Rica, I invite you to consider our Aging with Dignity project. With an open mind and an open heart, I promise you’ll come back filled with more love than you thought possible.