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Cortney Freshwater with one of her ‘abuelas’ at Hogar San José in Cochabamba

Our culture often tells us that we should celebrate our big events, such as births, graduations and weddings. Most of us are not famous, so sometimes our birthdays may go by unnoticed. And even if today was our birthday and, thanks to Facebook notifications, we were remembered, who will remember us on the other 364 days of the year?

And what and how do we celebrate when we have seen seven decades or more and we no longer possess the family ties or human abilities that we had when we were in our 20s and 30s? Equally important is the question who will help with the daily reasons during those 364 days to celebrate—the importance of the robin’s song, the gentle warmth of the shining sun or the simple sense of harmony brought about by smiles from those we randomly encounter.

One of our lay missioners, Cortney Freshwater, collaborates with those who have experienced seven or more decades of life. Cortney keeps the command of Timothy to “exhort the elderly” (Timothy 5: 1-2) through her ministry.

The Hogar San José is located in the City of Cochabamba. It was founded in 1938 and is administered by the Hermanitas de los Ancianos Desamparados (Little Sisters of the Abandoned Elderly). Working at this home for the elderly, Cortney has discovered that by her accompaniment she can help the women and men to celebrate the simple pleasures of life. Almost 150 “senior citizens” reside at the Hogar San José, where the staff and volunteers exhort the residents to enjoy the day by listening to their stories, playing board games such as checkers and chess, participating in arts and crafts and often just by visiting.

Among the many visits we made during a recent afternoon was a gentle conversation with Nimia, who shared with us her journey to the town of Colcaphirua—located just outside of Cochabamba. Although tired during the late afternoon visit, she readily got up from her bed and beckoned Cortney to sit next to her and held her hand so they could share.

Nimia shared with us some of the wisdom she had acquired in her more than eight decades of life. “Do the first things first, so I would attend the first Mass of the morning on Sunday so to have the rest of the day to do whatever might come up. Cortney is my friend, but when she departs I am never alone. God is always with me and with you.”

Amalia, who told us that she is “95 years young,” shared with Cortney and me a little about her life. At age 80, she took up the task to organize the first walkathon for senior citizens in her native city of Sucre, Bolivia. She proudly showed us the T-shirt that was given to all the walkathon participants. After sharing with us much more about her athletic accomplishments and those of her great grandson, who just won a trophy for soccer excellence, I asked her if she considered Cortney to be a friend, due to their numerous conversations.

“Cortney and I aren’t friends, we are like family. She is like my daughter,” she said

Cortney graciously helps to serve hot soup and tea at their daily 5:30 supper. She shares smiles and laughs with each of the 30 or so female residents who are well enough to be able to get to the dining room on their own.

After my visit to Hogar San José, Cortney shared with me her reasons for choosing this ministry, “They give me so much. Sometimes their advice is contradictory, like when some tell me to get married to a Bolivian and others tell me to remain single. I just laugh. They are all my grandmothers, and they give me lots of joy and wisdom.”

The Hogar San José and Cortney put the teaching of Pope Francis into action,

Homes for the elderly should be the “lungs” of humanity in a country, in a neighborhood, in a parish; “sanctuaries” of humanity where those who are old and weak are cared for and taken care of like a brother or a sister. It’s good for you to go and visit senior citizens! Look at young people: sometimes seem miserable and sad: Go visit an elderly person and you will become joyful!

Old age, in particular, is a time of grace, in which the Lord will renew his call: calls us to preserve and transmit the faith, calls us to pray, especially to intercede; calls us to be close to those who maybe in need. The elderly – grandparents [especially] – have a capacity to understand the most difficult situations: a great ability – and when they pray for these situations, their prayer is strong. It is powerful. 

After spending just a few hours with Cortney and the residents at Hogar San José, I agree completely with Pope Francis when he concluded that the elderly “are like trees that continue to bear fruit” (September 28, 2014)

Pope Francis’ conclusion is not true despite the age of those at homes such as Hogar San José; it is true because of their age that the elderly continue to bear fruit. During seven or more decades they have put down strong roots and grown many branches which are ripe with fruit all year round.

We just need to be wise enough to harvest the bounty. This is a reason enough to help them celebrate each and every day.

For more on Cortney’s ministry, click here. 

Photos by Joe Loney. 

Joe Loney Joe Loney
Joe Loney oversees the Social Inclusion Project in Tacopaya and Cochabamba, Bolivia, and is Maryknoll Lay Missioners' regional director for Bolivia.