The harsh reality of elderly life in Bolivia

Every Spanish school in Sucre organizes some activities for the students, whether it would be cooking classes, playing sports or salsa dancing. Our Spanish school organized a trip for us to a senior people’s home to get a glimpse into the harsh reality of getting older in Bolivia.

The entrance to the senior people’s home

Unlike Canada, senior housing in Bolivia does not have many resources. As a result, the majority of the elderly people cannot actually stay at this home overnight. Those people that absolutely cannot move end up sleeping on the floor at this home. But the others hike up to two hours each way every couple of days just to get a single meal and maybe some medicine.

The senior home we visited had no medicine whatsoever. Donations from us and other students were used to buy some muscle relaxant cream (similar to Tiger Balm), medicated heating patches for sore muscles and ear drops to prevent and treat infection. Why would these people need muscle relaxant, you ask? Well, the beneficiaries of this particular senior home were indigenous people, mainly from Quechua and Aymara background. The majority were women that still work at the markets despite their age. They carry heavy bags on their backs, full of produce or handicrafts to sell. They often hike for a very long time carrying these bags, which puts a major strain on their muscles.

Upon arriving at this senior home, we were greeted by the elderly people and shook hands with them. We then set up a room where each elderly person could sit on a chair while we, the students from the school, would massage their sore muscles. We massaged their backs, their arms, their sore legs and feet. Rami even treated a woman who fell and had a huge bruise on her elbow. I administered ear drops for every senior person there.

Students massage sore legs and feet of the elderly
Rami gives a back rub
Rami examines a woman who fell and hurt her arm

Some elderly women teared up when they were being massaged. Perhaps it was a simple act of kindness from us that caused them to get emotional. Sadly, we could not communicate with any of these people since they spoke in their own indigenous languages instead of Spanish. But we learned about their stories from our Spanish teachers.

This man tried very hard to communicate with me, but I could not understand him. At times his facial expressions would be serious and his eyes would swell up with tears as he passionately explained something to me. But when I shook my head and smiled apologetically that I couldn’t understand him, he would start laughing

One woman was 99 years old and spoke in a language that no one understood. In order to communicate, she would point to parts of her body that hurt. She was the only one in a wheelchair, and due to the lack of mobility, she slept on the floor at this home.

The 99-year old lady who was forced to sleep on the floor of the senior home because of her immobility

Another woman was a bit younger but could not make any sound at all. We learned that she had mental issues and her own family tried to kill her by slitting her throat and leaving her to die on the street because she could not contribute financially to the economic well-being of the family. Since her throat was slit, she could not talk at all.

Yet another woman was 98 years old and was in a good shape considering her age. She had sore muscles of course, but she was smiling all the time and communicating with our Spanish teachers. Her hair was jet black, with not a single grey hair! Rami and I were thinking that her active lifestyle involving hiking everywhere is likely a contributor to her relatively good health.

The 98-year old woman who despite her age was very cheerful and happy to be pampered with massages

There were also two orphaned children that were being looked after by the man, who runs the senior home. They were both found on the street and were being educated in hopes that they could make something of themselves in the future.

One of the children at the home

After we finished giving massages, we fed the elderly with some crepes and fruits juice. And when we were done, they all clapped for us and wanted to take some pictures.

A simple meal of crepes and fruit juice
A group picture with some of the elderly women and other students

Of course not every senior person in Bolivia ends up in these dire circumstances. Those that are lucky, have families to take care of them when they are older. But this experience opened our eyes to a harsh reality that exists for some indigenous people in Bolivia as they get older and have no relatives to take care of them.

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