Originally published on July 29, 2014 at RSWanderer, a travel blog on Woodlands Online detailing my experiences during a one-month study abroad program in Spain.
We spend our whole lives in Little Old Lady training. (Or Little Old Man training, or whatever–feel free to change the gender in your mind to accommodate yourself.) We age, and as we do, we collect experience that not only shapes who we will be at 70 or 80 or 90 years old but that will also serve as stories that we can force on our grandkids and neighbors and caretakers. People have intrinsic value, but Little Old Ladies possibly even more so, because they are so full of time and life. They and their experiences are invaluable. Becoming a Little Old Lady is not only a natural part of life; it is also the culmination of everything you have done and been up to that point.
In my head, this is who I will be as a Little Old Lady:
These are members of the Red Hat Society, a social organization originally formed for ladies age 50 and older that has since opened up to women of all ages. Their mission is to gather women of all walks of life who wish to find comedic relief in each day. Those women are exactly who I aspire to be: women who age with grace, who remain social, who go out in society with gaudy red and purple hats and coats and feather boas because at that point, who cares about how much attention they’re attracting to themselves? They may as well have fun.
In Valencia, my roommate and I have volunteered not with hermanitas, but rather at L’acollida, a nursing home about 30 minutes on foot away from the Colegio Mayor. The residents at L’acollida, however, are ostensibly not members of the Red Hat Society. Instead of gallivanting about in red and purple outfits, they spend their time in a repurposed apartment complete with a kitchen, two general living rooms, bedrooms and a few offices. Many suffer from dementia and related disorders. Some walk around slowly or spend most of their time in chairs in la sala multiusos. Some are in wheelchairs or on bed rest, unable to move, speak or eat by themselves. Our service, therefore, has consisted of three things: taking walks with the residents, leading what is essentially a Sit N Fit workout and, finally, helping with dinner.
The Little Old Ladies (again, feel free to change the gender in your mind; I will refer to everyone as a Little Old Lady because that is how I conceptualize my theory) were all very different. This was apparent from our first activity, taking small walks (paseitos). I escorted one woman out onto the small patio, to which she reacted with plaintive murmurs: “It’s so cold out here… I am so cold… Can we please go back inside…” Another talked about her personal experience with aging: “I used to be able to do so many things. Now, I can barely walk.” However, she was still quite happy to have someone to talk to.
I believe in the importance of social interactions, whether you are teaching a preschool child, socializing a traumatized dog or helping an elderly person maintain their psychological and social health. I actually almost created an argument with a classmate yesterday as to what comprises useful service. Interpersonal communication is just as important as if not more important than what one might consider traditional service, i.e. helping the service partner out by cooking, clearing plates, washing dishes, etc. In walking and talking with Little Old Ladies, I am doing important work whose value is not diminished by the fact that some may not consider it traditional service.
Social interactions continued during our Sit N Fit workout. Because our training at L’acollida was minimal, my roommate and I had forgotten most of the exercises that the nurse had briefly gone over with us. Thankfully, two women were more than happy to help us out. They could have easily sat back and declined to engage with the squirrelly American volunteers or made fun of us for being underprepared, but they boosted us instead: “Oh, we do this exercise as well! Like this, con las manos—arriba, abajo. And this one, con los pies—tapa, tapa, tapa.” It was wonderful to see these two fabulous women engage with us, not only physically (as was the main point of the exercises) but also socially. They were like a much nicer version of Statler and Waldorf, excited at the opportunity to comment on other people but not quite as derogatory as the balcony-bound Muppets.
Our last task was to help with dinner. I have to be completely honest. This portion of the evening was very difficult. We were assigned to help some of the residents who were more disabled; that is, people who were no longer able to feed themselves.
This was not in our training. This would not even have been mentioned to us had it not been for some of our classmates who had volunteered at L’acollida the day prior.
Three of the residents had to be spoon-fed. The nurse we were working with, an amicable young woman named Lydia, took care of one woman whose name I never learned. She had short, wisp-white hair and no teeth, and she periodically let out unintelligible cries. I was paired with a dark-haired woman named Maruja, who I was warned had many “manías”—similar to compulsions—and would stop every few minutes to clean her hands and chin thoroughly with a paper napkin. At first, I fed Maruja slowly, offering her moderately sized spoonsful of green soup bit by bit. Lydia, however, took one look at what I was doing and instructed me to speed up, keep shoveling it in, over and over and over. I did. Maruja couldn’t indulge her manía higienica until after she had finished both the green soup and a small cup of white, flavorless yogurt.
Successfully done with Maruja, I glanced over to where my roommate was sitting. She was attempting to feed another woman, Lucía, with very little success. Lucía was extremely physically disabled. She couldn’t move herself: I’ve never seen her out of a wheelchair, she couldn’t participate in our Sit N Fit routine, and when I put on her bib, I tried to move her hands so that they were resting on top of rather than under it. There was no muscle in her arms whatsoever. It had all appeared to have completely degenerated. Additionally, she only had three teeth.
Lucía, like my brother at age three, didn’t want to eat. But negotiating with her was nothing like negotiating with a picky toddler. Instead of “Okay, listen, kid, you need to get over yourself and eat your peas,” she had to be pleaded with, “Lucía, you need to eat. You need to.”
As my roommate was making no progress with her, I took on the task of negotiating. The pain on Lucía’s face as I force-fed her was indescribable. She couldn’t even talk, but she still had to open her mouth so that I could pour soup, bit by bit, onto her tongue. Against her will. Over and over and over. At one point, I paused to wipe her chin, which was a mistake. I had to start over with the negotiations: “Open your mouth, Lucía, you have to eat, open your mouth, open your mouth.”
I did finally finish but not without a great deal of convincing. A couple times, I had to convince her to swallow. Lucía did not want to eat. Either it was very painful or she had no interest in taking care of herself anymore. Possibly both.
A large portion of the American population sees the elderly as a burden, more a drain on society than a boon. We continually have to argue that simply because people are less capable than they once were does not mean that they are any less human. That day, I wanted to argue with Lucía, to convince her of her own worth. I wanted to let her know that it was important that she take care of herself not for my benefit, but for her own. That she had intrinsic value as a person. I wanted to convince all of the Little Old Ladies at L’acollida of this. I wanted to let them know how important they were in their own right and as role models for younger generations. I wanted them to feel worthy of eating, worthy of existing.
Lucía and the other residents might not have been as capable as they would have liked to be. They may not wear red hats or go out on the town with their friends. But they all still qualify as Little Old Ladies. They have more than earned that title. To be a Little Old Lady is simply to live a full life, to exist, to have formed your own personal history throughout the years. Little Old Ladies are full of life, whether they appear to be or not, simply because they have a grand collection of their own lived experiences inside them. .
I originally created this Spain blog to act as a “window to the world,” to allow residents of The Woodlands to experience something beyond the outer reaches of “The Bubble.” In being here, though, I’ve discovered that simply traveling does not comprise a means to a wider worldview. Instead, people comprise that. People are a window to the world, and serving them allows you to develop that window for yourself.
If you want to get out of The Bubble, simply talk to people. Go out in your community and have extensive conversations with Little Old Ladies. Hear their stories. Visit them. Exercise with them. They deserve your presence and your company, and you have so much to gain by being with them. By listening to their experiences, you can live those same lives secondhand. You can increase your own perspective and capacity for empathy.
I’ve said before that I was raised with an idea of service, and I will continue to argue the importance of human interaction. The first time I talked one-on-one with a Little Old Lady, I was about ten years old. I was certain that I had found the meaning of life. Now, I regularly exchange letters with my grandmother, and I love to hear about her experiences, both past and present, and to understand her perspective.
Service at L’acollida may have presented some challenges, but it also presented me with another opportunity to increase my perspective. I love talking to Little Old Ladies, with or without red hats, and I cannot wait to become one.