Without any doubt, seniors are among the most vulnerable of Mexico’s citizens. In keeping with the times, more and more families are breaking down, people are moving to where the jobs are, families are splitting up and it is no longer as uncommon as it once was for seniors to be forgotten or abandoned.
One result is greater strain on care facilities, some of which are seriously under-funded.
One that is not in the latter category, thanks to the support of a non-profit organization, is in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero.
Located outside town in a village called Los Pozas, Bet Shalom is one of two seniors’ homes in the area that cater to the abandoned and the infirm. Although technically they both serve the elderly, the two could not be farther apart.
Bet Shalom is run by Hablando Menos, Amando Más (Speak Less, Love More), a Christian organization that was formed in 2007 when its founders saw a need that was not being met by the government.
Through private donations, sheer determination on the part of volunteers both Mexican and foreign, coupled with a lot of prayer, a simple idea soon blossomed into a home that currently serves eight residents, two to a room.
The second wing, when completed and furnished, will house 20. The common areas and grounds are spacious and light filled. The home has its own well water and is beginning to grow its own vegetables.
The residents are fed nutritious meals and snacks and are cared for by qualified staff and volunteers 24 hours a day.
Co-founder Rose Cavenagh explained that it took many years to create a liveable home but only because it was decided early on to avoid going into debt, relying instead on church and individual donations to carry out the construction.
In sharp contrast is Casa de María in La Noria, one of Zihuatanejo’s poorest neighborhoods. Run by the DIF family services agency and some volunteers, it is the exact opposite of a model seniors’ home.
One of those volunteers is Deb Kraemer, who first learned of Casa de María two years ago while on tour with a local church group – the same one, incidentally, that runs Bet Shalom.
She initially thought she would work at helping the children of Zihuatanejo, but it wasn’t long before she found herself drawn into the problems facing seniors. She was appalled by the living conditions at the home she currently helps run.
Casa de María Asilo is not much more than a shell of a building. Before windows and screens were installed this year there was little to keep out the rain and the bugs that plague the area in the rainy season.
The home has only two large bedrooms to house its 16 residents, one for men and one for women. Since the men outnumber the women by about six to one, they are stacked and packed tightly in an airless room that can reach upwards of 38 C.
Most of the time the residents can be found parked in wheelchairs in the alleyway trying to catch a breeze.
There is a small kitchen and just two bathrooms for all the residents and the handful of staff, as well as a common area that also serves as a dining room.
The first task Deb Kraemer set for herself was to throw out the food that had rotted or expired and bring a semblance of order to complete chaos. Once that was done she found that having enough food was not the problem: local hotels take turns sending surplus food on a rotating basis.
The problem was having qualified staff to prepare it. The same applied to the physical care of the patients. With an average salary of just 95 pesos per day, it was nearly impossible to hire qualified caregivers who are required to cook, clean, dress, feed and manage residents from 7:00am to 6:00pm.
To top it off, at 4:30pm the residents were given a snack and put to bed. The doors were then bolted shut and the most mobile or capable of the residents given the key in case of emergency.
Although on the surface the problems would seem insurmountable, there is hope.
There is now a fulltime cook, a student nurse and a jack of all trades to carry the load of what two people alone had to do in the past. There is also an army of foreign volunteers and a handful of Mexican ones, including Dr. José de los Santos, who volunteers his medical services. With little in the way of supplies, however, there is little he can do beyond cursory checks.
The volunteers are generous with their time and expertise. Some with medical backgrounds are teaching the staff how to properly care for the residents with exercise and proper moving and bathing techniques, to name a few.
Now and then a local school group (and even this writer’s belly dance troupe) entertain the residents. A local beauty school comes each month to give haircuts. Others pop by just to sit and chat.
Locals, both foreign and Mexican, have offered to pick up the slack in the slow season. A new water tank has been purchased, rooms painted and supplies organized. Moldy bathroom walls and floors have been retiled and the whole place has been given a thorough cleaning.
Much more still needs to be done and it is an ongoing problem to hire qualified staff. Unfortunately, the DIF does not pay all the salaries, so Kraemer and others contribute their own funds to ensure there are enough staff onsite 24 hours a day.
The best news has been the hiring of an overseer, Juan Mateo Cruz, to take over when Kraemer returns to the United States. His salary is also subsidized through donations.
The situation in Zihuatanejo raises an important question: why is the government not spending more for what is certainly going to be a bigger problem as the years progress and the aging population increases?
It appears the only way seniors with limited means can enjoy quality care is thanks to the efforts of religious and volunteer-driven organizations. But where is the government’s responsibility in this?
One thing is certain: neither of the two homes would exist without volunteer intervention and donations which, of course, are always welcome.
To donate or help:
• Hablando Menos, Amando Más. Contact Rose Hernandez Cavenagh.
• Casa María Asilo. Contact Deb Kraemer.
Casa de María, operated by the family services agency
Bet Shalom, run by a non-profit organization