By Robert Bradley
In January of this year, I wrote a column for CuencaHighLife drawing attention to the difficulties facing senior expats who, for any number of reasons, find themselves alone — strangers in a strange land.
My report detailed the plight of elderly singles in Cuenca unable, or unwilling, to ask for assistance when they needed it. I suggested that depression, a sense of isolation, or even a shyness were reasons they did not seek help.
In the worse cases, when expats alone suffer incapacitating injury in the home, access to assistance is absolutely essential, but who do they turn to? Who is checking up on them?
The reaction to my column was overwhelming as many of my fellow expats expressed their willingness to participate in a project to develop a support network for those who live alone. After months of planning and hard work I am pleased to announce the result of our efforts: Cuenca Expat Assist (CEA) and the website cuencaexpatassist.org, a “one-stop” resource guide and directory.
“We started as a new organization in January and meet once a month,” said Cynthia Mills, the group’s scribe. “We spent a considerable amount of time trying to come up with a direction and structure that everyone was comfortable with.”
The CEA volunteers made a series of decisions while creating is web site. The first breakthrough came when we realized that, rather than copying and recreating the work of others or attempting to shoulder all the needs ourselves, we needed the active participation of the entire community. The realization helped shape the project.
CEA focuses on developing a directory of programs available in the community to help those who live alone. “The website tries to take advantage of many organizations’ resources and collect them in one place,” said Brian Hitsky, who is responsible for designing and maintaining the day-to-day operation of the site. “We have developed pages where resources are listed to make it easy for people seeking information to find it. There are links to various subject matter such as medical, food delivery, government, volunteering as well as a daily calendar of events and activities happening in Cuenca.”
One of the highlights of CEA is a free Robo-calling service called Telegram. It is a cell phone application that can alert your circle of friends and neighbors in case of an emergency if you don’t respond to phone calls the application makes automatically.
By downloading the application and setting up your group, the service automatically makes calls to you every day. If you don’t respond, it tries again later. After three attempts, it will alert the group that you haven’t responded. Someone in the group can then check on your status to make sure you’re OK. Telegram loads the people you want in your group from your phones contact list. Telegram is available for Apple and Android devices.
Another essential element of CEA is access to medical professionals to get medical information quickly and accurately. In a collaborative effort, the International Christian Community, (ICC) and CEA designed and are distributing medical alert cards with a list of current medications and health conditions of the cardholder. These cards are now available online on the CEA website. To make this service more convenient, from time to time CEA members will distribute cards at ferias and special events in Cuenca.
To expand the program, CEA is exploring the idea with the City of Cuenca of replicating a program now gaining considerable attention in the U.S. called “Yellow Dot,” which attaches a yellow dot to the front door of the homes of vulnerable citizens. This marker alerts medical and emergency personnel that a detailed list of all medical requirements, medications and concerns are in a designated folder and filed in a designated place known to the responders. The advantages are immediate. Even if someone is unconscious, their complete medical history will be available for prompt consideration, often when minutes are the difference between life and death.
A multi-faceted organization such as CEA requires significant community support and investment. To maximize our effort, another innovative approach is under development: Pods. Rather than mixing all the programs and projects into a single collection, CEA seeks to develop “pods” of interest and volunteer participation. Interested in medical alerts? There is a pod for that. Finding a meaningful place to volunteer your time in the service of caring for stray dogs? There is a pod for that, as well. The CEA Directory offers a comprehensive listing of services and events sure to be of interest to many. It is continually being developed as more ideas take fruition.
“We want to have a collaborative effort where everyone’s suggestions are considered,” said Gary Sims, CEA facilitator. He added, “We have people from different backgrounds and experiences all wanting to make a difference by helping others. There’s no single way to do that.”
CEA has other projects that need committed member support. For example, access to medical equipment is a pressing need. Beds, canes, crutches, and other items are in demand. CEA hopes to build relationships with area hospitals to fulfill the need.
Perhaps there are social events coming up where CEA would have an opportunity to broadcast their services to a broader audience.
Many people in the expat community are lonely and desperately need a kind word, a visit to look forward to, someone to call from time to time to say, “Hello, how are you today?” That caller could be you. The warmth of your kindness will radiate far beyond the moment. You will feel it in your heart every single day.
CEA is supported by a core of 20 volunteers dedicated to serving as an umbrella group to provide information and a means of access to medical information and services. The website also includes information about a wide array of event to encourage folks to get out of the house, meet new friends, and become an active participant in our collective well-being. There is ample room beneath the umbrella for all.
To maintain the focus on your needs and the needs of the community, CEA will occasionally offers a survey to the community to help them help you. Please take a moment and fill out their brief questionnaire. Your voice is needed. So is your support.
To take our first survey, go to https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1DWShiP0Fwi2lCMm11Zzg_V5swoylChqe04FzeR_AHEw/edit
For information and to find out how to help, please visit