By Wendy Jane Carrel
I first met Sor (Sister) Patricia of the Hermanitas de la Caridad (Sisters of Charity) four years ago. I was conducting site visits of Ecuadorian assisted living homes. She was (and still is) the “coordinadora” in charge of 64 older adults – abandoned with no income, or low income. She astounded me then, and continues to amaze me now with her energy, integrity, vision, and dedication, providing the best possible care for her residents.
And I’m glad I’m not the only one who has noticed her quiet, efficient, productive efforts. On April 12, 2015 Mayor Marcelo Cabrera honored her with an award, “given with love, gratitude and applause from the City of Cuenca to our dear Sor Patricia Rodriguez Ramirez for her noble work for the benefit of older adults.”
So who is Sor Patricia and what has she created that has made a contribution not only to the lives of those for whom she cares, but also to the community at large?
Sor Patricia was born 86 years ago in Alausi, Chimborazo, high in the Andes. She says she knew from childhood she would seek a religious life, a life of service to others. She spent a number of years teaching children in Quito, and later travelled to Mexico on missions, always to poor communities. Eight years ago she was transferred to Hogar Miguel Leon (the Miguel Leon Home) at Simon Bolivar 14-58, a few doors east of Plaza San Sebastian. Hogar Miguel Leon sits on an entire city block.
To enter the Hogar you pass through an entrance corridor that leads to a courtyard gate. To the right of the gate is a shy, elderly nun Josefina, usually knitting in a little booth. She greets you. You walk to the right of the booth around the courtyard where you will see the office of Madre Superiora Mariana Espinosa on the left, the Mother Superior in charge of the entire campus. You’ll pass classrooms of the girl’s orphanage. Soon you are in an open area which is both a huge basketball court for play but also serves as an amphitheater. To the right is a passageway leading to a small chapel, and beyond it to the left is another courtyard leading to the physical therapy section which can also be accessed from Estevez Toral Street.
You backtrack to a ramp off the basketball court. The ramp leads to the back property building second level where soon you see caged birds and the peach-colored lavender trim housing for 64 older adults. Sor Patricia’s modest office is in one corner, her more modest bedroom and bath are next to the office. Next to her bedroom is another administrative office for a psychologist and a social worker. From her perch she can see and hear all that is happening with her seniors, most of whom are younger than she. Even though she has a day support staff of three nursing assistants, she is on-call for the needs of each resident because she chooses to be.
This one-woman powerhouse, quietly but with persistence, is up by 5 a.m. for private devotionals. She then sees that her charges are bathed, dressed, fed, exercised, and entertained. She does this every day. She personally serves the meals at lunch time, attends mass with her seniors after lunch, sits by the beds of the ill in the evening s, and sings and dances, usually wearing a yellow sombrero, when occasions arise. She particularly likes cumbias and other happy, tropical music.
When you meet with Sor Patricia, it won’t be a traditional one-on-one. You won’t sit. You will follow, accompanying her from the kitchen to the dining room to resident rooms. On a recent Tuesday afternoon we took a taxi to Presidente Cordova and Padre Aguirre in El Centro to stop by one of her older adult classes that makes natural soaps and cosmetics. The proceeds from the sale of the products help keep the shelter up and running. (The products are sold every Friday at the MIES (government social services) office on the north side of Sucre at Hermano Miguel (no street number, just a cafeteria sign above two doors). We walked up two flights to the classroom – the climb didn’t deter her a bit. You can feel how the students adore her, they light up when she arrives offering smiles and warm hugs. She responds with a slip of a smile, scans the room, and asks a question or two. All seems in order, and off we go. Short, sweet, efficient. Back down the stairs and out the door. On to the next situation.
Now you are wondering… there are many people dedicated to the well-being of older adults who also do this work. Yes, they do, and they are to be greatly admired and appreciated. But there is more…
In eight years Sor Patricia has managed to produce or manifest, in collaboration with others, unique ways to sustain the charity and to advance the lives of older adults. Among her many accomplishments are:
The first Universidad del Adulto Mayor (University of Older Adults) in Ecuador. UAM opened its doors to older adults in the community in September 2013 with classes about older adult rights, gerontology, wellness, self-care, music, painting, history, dance, computer use, and computer programming. There are 15 professors, one of whom is a distinguished, retired physician, Saul Chalco. Chalco also serves as UAM’s academic director. Classes are held on the second floor at the front of the compound. Each module lasts three months, the fee is $50 per module. At the end of each module, students are given a certificate. Sor Patricia is an avid reader (unusual in this country) and a proponent of continuing education for older adults, a concept now catching on in other Ecuadorian cities. UAM is accredited by the Department of Education for Ecuador (SENESYT) and by the Ministry of Education for the Province of Azuay. As a side note, Cuba just started classes for Older Adults at the University of Havana in January of this year. http://www.uh.cu/node/1060, http://www.uh.cu/taxonomy/term/857.
A two-day seminar at UAM in March on what constitutes a “Good Death”. It was attended by Cuenca elder care workers, psychologists, funeral home workers, and physicians and nurses who work with cancer patients. The seminar leader was Dr. Hugo Dopaso, a highly-regarded Argentinian psychiatrist who flew in from Buenos Aires. See http://hugodopaso.com.ar or listen to Dr. Dopaso at an Argentinian TED Talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvCLm4GPoRY .
A physical therapy center that is open to the public, a revenue source for the hogar. If you are interested, go in person from 9 am to noon on weekdays. The cost is $6 an hour, even for massages. No English spoken. The physical therapists are graduates of the University of Cuenca.
A place for Certified Nursing Assistant students from the American College (Instituto Tecnico Superior) and Consorcio Educativo Continental to intern; she has also inspired gerontology students from the University of Cuenca who work alongside her.
Inter-generational music events for the seniors and orphans with talented musicians and high school students who perform on a regular basis. On sunny days they gather on the basketball court.
Volunteer opportunities for North Americans and Europeans. You are welcome to keep seniors company, conduct a chair exercise class, teach art, or assist the home with other needs. It would help if you speak some Spanish but it is not obligatory.
The phone no. is (07)282-2928. No English is spoken at Hogar Miguel Leon. Always best to go in person, and ask for Sor Patricia if you wish to aide her work.
Just a few days ago, Sor Patricia ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. She cares so much for the well-being of her seniors that she exhausted herself. I am happy to say she is on the mend. One of my lovely friends from the States, is now a regular fixture by Sor Patricia’s side, making an immense contribution to the hogar. I am grateful for that.
But there are big needs, always. Even though government social services provides some income for food, more is always needed, especially staples such as rice and beans. The electricity is from the 1930’s. Anyone able to raise $6,000, or event part of it, to begin renovating the electrical service? Cooking utensils, blankets, warm slippers, socks, and other assorted items are welcome. Sor Patricia tells me they also need a new door for the downstairs bathroom adjacent to the dining room.
As Sor Patricia states (my translation) “Each day there are more older adults in our society, and families are not taking care of them as they used to… but I love being here, and I love doing this work.”
Sor Patricia is one of Cuenca’s treasures. When I grow up I wish to be like her – totally in service to others, providing continual benefits, and never giving up. If you visit, you’ll notice how basic Hogar Miguel Leon is. You will understand the enormous odds Sor Patricia confronts and overcomes every day.
Note: Sor Patricia is away recuperating until the middle of June 2015.
Wendy Jane Carrel, M.A., has been based in Cuenca while researching health care options in Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico for the last two and a half years. She has lived or worked on four continents in over 40 countries.