Summer 2022 newsletter
Louise Locke, Bolivia
“Ayan! Ayan! Ayan!” This is the sound that greets me when I enter the women’s living area of Asilo Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd Home), a home for the elderly in Cochabamba. It is coming from a diminutive resident, Benedicta, sitting in her wheelchair in the hallway, and seems so much more forceful than one would think, considering her apparent frailty.
The sound is loud and echoes through the building but no one seems to pay much attention to it, neither the staff nor the other residents. It is a pretty common occurrence, so I imagine that the folks who live and work here have become somewhat immune. I, however, have only been working here less than a month, so I go sit beside Benedicta and try to calm her and find out if there is anything I can do to help with the agitation.
Most of the 50 residents that live in Asilo Buen Pastor have no family, are unable to care for themselves and are completely destitute. Without this beautiful facility and the caring order of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, who operate it, most of these residents would be living on the streets of Cochabamba. In fact, that is probably where they were before they came to live at the asilo.
Quite a few of them are indigenous and only speak their native language, which most often is Quechua. This is the case with Benedicta, and I am unable to understand what she wants. However, I sit next to her and put my hand in her lap.
She grasps my arm and starts holding on for dear life. She quiets down a bit and I have the opportunity to be in this moment with her as I look reflectively at her hand that is holding mine. The veins are pronounced and the skin deeply furrowed. Her knuckles appear swollen from arthritis, which I am sure causes her pain. Her grip, however, is quite strong, and she explores my hand and arm as if searching for the answer to her vocalizations.
I am caught up in the image of what she might have been like in her younger years, living an extremely difficult life in the mountains of Bolivia. What have these hands experienced? How many potatoes have they planted, excavated, peeled? How many bags of vegetables and fruit did they carry to sell in the city market? How many meals did they cook for loved ones? Did they once hold a pañuelo (a white napkin or cloth) to dance the traditional Bolivian dance, the cueca?
As I’m caught up in these questions, it hits me with a force beyond me — that in front of me is a person with a whole history that is hidden from me, and my only response should be one of the greatest respect and reverence.
I have worked for more than 30 years with seniors in various capacities and have journeyed with them through losses, illnesses and death. The most important thing I have learned in accompanying elders is to acknowledge them with love and listen intently to what they have to say — even if I don’t understand the words or they are repeating the same words multiple times.
It may seem obvious, but, like any of us, seniors want to be included in the larger community, respected and heard in spite of the loss of physical or mental faculties. Like any of us, they want to feel like their lives matter.
I have facilitated countless funerals and memorial services, and one of the consistent surprises I experience is when I listen to the eulogy by a family member. I almost always find out some aspect of the person being memorialized that I never knew and quite often I’m touched and humbled by it. I am reminded that my life intersected with the person only in their last few years and that he or she had countless life experiences, struggles and triumphs that I was never privileged to witness.
As I turn my attention back to Benedicta, she begins her cry again, desperation in her voice and expression. As I listen to her cries once again, I now understand that she is saying “See me! See me! See me!”
Please consider making a special gift to Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ “Walk With Us” campaign, which raises money for the recruitment, training and ongoing support of all of us lay missioners. We can only “walk with” the people here because you are “walking with” us. Thanks to matching gifts, every $100 given to the campaign in effect becomes $150. To donate ONLINE, click the “Walk With Us” button below. Thank you so much for your generosity!