Miracle at the Hogar: Residents at retirement home seem to grow younger
By Shermakaye Bass — Matagalpa, Nicaragua
Reporter and Editor for Fara Foundation
The journalist in me is a skeptic. Yet, I know what I experienced when I visited the Hogar de Ancianos San Francisco de Asis, “old-folks home” a few miles south of Matagalpa overseen by the order of Santa Ana and supported by our foundation. It was nothing short of miraculous.
The fragrance of nature and life, fecundity even, hovers around the tidy brick structure whose two residential wings jut back into the tropical landscape. There was no musty smell, and I noticed no dejected faces among the 4o or so residents. What I did see were lush flower gardens, mature fruit orchards, teeming vegetable gardens, sparkling terra cotta tiles, open-air sitting areas, a peaceful sanctuary and chapel, spotless kitchen. All overseen by four nuns with help from residents. Even the hogs and chickens they raise here are pristine and plump; they seem…content and certainly oblivious to the fact that they’re on the menu. The hens are prolific, producing dozens of eggs per day. Everything seems to thrive here.
The exterior of the Hogar de Ancianos San Francisco de Asis
More than anything, however, it was the stories of recovery and gratitude, relayed by smiling residents in handsome rocking chairs taking fresh air in the open breezeways. As I visited with them, many told me they’d had no where else to go. Some had family who’d been forced to move away for work, others whose family who were all deceased and still others whose people couldn’t afford to care for their elderly.
I wanted to sit in that breeze, in those chairs. I wanted to join them. I kept thinking, This place is paradise. And everywhere I was hearing of things that seemed like miracles: In front of me, standing and talking animatedly, was Lucila, a woman in her 60’s who loves to dance with her visitors, not a care in the world — a woman who had arrived several years ago broken and utterly crippled from an auto accident. My encounter with a beautiful abuela, Ana Maria, who was brought in blind and non-communicative; she looked up as I walked in, peered straight at me and asked who I was, and then, patting the bed so I would sit next to her, told me she once had a sister and father with eyes the same color as mine, a family now long gone. I began to cry. I didn’t realize at the time that Ana Maria was once blind, but her memories and the fact that I reminded her of family moved me deeply. I kept telling myself, Journalists don’t cry. I kept saying to myself, It’s they who should be crying, not you. But Ana Maria comforted me. I think she knew what inspired my tears, and soon she had me smiling again.
Then there was a younger woman, Cayda, who seemed far too young to be here. But like many others at the hogar, she’d had no where else to go after an accident that left her in a coma and, for months after awakening, completely immobilized. That was a couple of years ago. Now, Cayda is able to sit with her companions on the terrace; she gets around with the aid of a walker. Some doctors hadn’t expected her to emerge from her coma.
“What is it, how do these things happen here?” I asked Hermana Janet, who was overseeing operations for Mother Superior Ana Lucia Bosa that week in late spring. The Sister was young — in her 30’s, perhaps — and, as she walked me through the gardens and livestock areas on the acreage behind the hogar, she smiled beatifically and said, “The people here know they are cared for and they are safe. They know they have love around them.”
In her crisp white habit, Sister Hermana was making her afternoon survey of the garden, and I watched as almost every living thing seemed to gravitate or lean in toward her as she passed. The home’s guard dogs (not a crew to mess with, generally speaking) yipped with pleasure, playfully nipping at her heels as she walked, barely kept at bay with gentle nudges from her crook. When I asked her why she carried it, Sister Janet shyly replied that the dogs (those ferocious hounds) would soil her starched habit by jumping up on her. I said, “Even the dogs and pigs here love you.” She smiled again. “All God’s creatures are important.”
Sunning on the terrace at the Hogar de Ancianos
I blurted out in my broken Spanish, “If this is what an ‘old-folks’ home’ is like in Nicaragua, then put me on the list. I’m moving here when it’s time to retire…”
Of course, the Hogar de Ancianos San Francisco de Asis is not like other places. I’m sure that as in the United States, a large number of elder-care facilities in Nicaragua are depressing, dark and not full of miracles. It’s the sisters, the care-givers here who transcend tragedy and transform lives.
As Lucila had explained earlier that day: “I was in a terrible bus crash and was the only survivor. … When I was brought here, I came in little bitty pieces.” (Her left hip and lower body were so mangled that even visiting doctors, who make daily rounds here, doubted Lucila would walk again. And if she did, it would be with assistance.) Yet here she was, smiling broadly, snapping her fingers, entreating me to dance with her, and telling me of her days spent in the hogar’s rose garden. One of Lucila’s great pleasures is tending those roses and helping the nuns with other chores. She made remarkable progress after a series of surgeries. “They put me back together here,” she quips. Again, I wanted to cry. But…journalists, especially well-provided-for journalists, don’t cry in the presence of the less fortunate. Right?
Lucila, a resident who tends to the rose garden, and myself at the hogar.
But are they less fortunate? That’s what I kept thinking. I can’t remember ever having such a thought while visiting an old-folks home.
Now that I’m back home in the U.S. — comfortable, sated, never lacking for anything — I continue to reflect on that day, and a part of me wants to be right there. I think of the lovely Ana Maria, who for years had been blinded by cataracts so severe that she’d never expected to see again. Once at the hogar, she had surgery to remove them. And not only did her eyesight return,so did her will to communicate with others. I believe she was given back the will to live.
Then, there’s the young Cayda who sat in a group in the afternoon sun, her walker nearby. Mother Superior Ana Lucia told us that it had taken a great deal of courage for Cayda to make such progress. After reviving from her coma, she was terrified to even move, much less get out of bed and work with the nuns (who sometimes double as physical therapists). But with patience and love, the sisters had prevailed upon Cayda to try. First, it was just getting her to the side of the bed, then to a wheelchair, then out of the room… Then, over time, out into the sun and the fresh mountain air, where she could hear the birds and smell the profusion of tropical flowers. And this was how I saw her — sunning. I would never have guessed what Cayda has been through.
So many smiles, the residents at the hogar seem to grow younger as time passes.
Later I was able to ask the Mother Superior, who oversees the cultivation of corn, squash, peppers, beans, mango, papaya, all things scrumptious on this working farm, what fueled her. What made her so committed to this work? Her answer was expectedly simple and beautiful:
“Because I have offered myself to God and to take care of the poorest and most needy, and to do it with joy.”
That was it. No more, no less. She may have even been surprised by the question, but her response was thoughtful, both uncomplicated and complex. This was her calling. The care of others. And that is the calling of Sister Janet and the others who care for those at the Hogar. Theirs is pure love.
And we all know that the greatest healing power of all is love.
As we left later that day, arms laden with mangoes and dozens of eggs which the nuns insisted we take (Oh, there is plenty more! they assured us), I asked Sister Janet, “If there’s a waiting list, could you put me on it? For, say, 40 years from now?”
She said she would make sure I got in.