With Covid-19 continuing to pose a threat to life and health, some kind of hush has fallen over the home run by the Little Sisters for the Abandoned Elderly in San Juan City.
The community singing and merrymaking that the residents enjoyed have been put on hold as health protocols are strictly observed in the home for almost 100 women—fondly called “lolas,” or grandmothers—in their 60s or older.
Before the pandemic, volunteers and guests organized games and held impromptu parties in which the residents sang accompanied by a visitor on the piano. Karaoke singing was a regular activity for the lolas, who are as music-loving as every other Filipino.
Sister Isabel Pereira, the de facto public relations person of the home, says celebrations like those cannot be held anymore. Social visits have to be restricted lest the dreaded virus make its way in. Doors to the main building are closed, and guests are received in a covered reception area outside.
The residents are naturally saddened by this turn of events, and the nuns have to explain why they cannot anymore do certain things or receive visitors.
“We had two or three cases [at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic],” Sister Isabel says, and thankfully all have recovered. There was one death during the lockdown but it was due to complications from tuberculosis with which the resident was afflicted before moving to the home.
“We are going slowly in reopening. We are very afraid for the lolas to be infected [by Covid-19] again.” Sister Isabel says. Visits to the home are limited to two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.
Sister Isabel says it has been very difficult to keep the residents safe from the virus. But perhaps it is no accident that, although its elderly residents are more vulnerable—many suffer from typical chronic diseases of aging like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems—they have been generally spared the devastation of the highly contagious and often fatal infection.
Nurses by training
The Congregation of the Little Sisters for the Abandoned Elderly, which is based in Spain, is composed of nurses. Sister Isabel says women who join the congregation are trained to be nurses as part of their formation. Currently, five or six Filipino women are in Spain completing their formation, she says.
The Filipinos are likely to be assigned to other countries “to expose them to the work the congregation is doing elsewhere” and may or may not work in the Philippines, depending on the needs of the local homes. The nuns here, like Sister Isabel, are from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, mainly in Latin America.
The congregation was established in 1873 in Valencia, Spain, by the venerable Father Saturnino Lopez Novoa, who was later joined by St. Teresa of Jesus Jornet. The San Juan establishment is also known as the St. Teresa of Jesus Jornet home.
Even in the 19th century, the founders already realized that the number of marginalized and forgotten elderly was growing. They had a common mission: “to help the poor and needy people.” Every member of the Congregation of the Little Sisters for the Abandoned Elderly is committed to this mission, Sister Isabel says.
The founders also emphasized “that the home they have established are not centers where the elderly could come to die, but, rather, a place to heal their wounded souls, regain their lost dignity, and live their last stage in life in faith and love,” she says.
The first home opened in Valencia is now the Mother House of the Little Sisters, under the protection of Our Lady of the Abandoned, Patroness of the City. There are now 205 homes with 25,000 elderly men and women in Europe, Africa, America, and Asia. They are cared for by more than 2,000 religious, qualified workers and volunteers.
The San Juan home was opened on Jan. 27, 2010. Sister Isabel says the congregation wanted to establish its presence in Asia, and the Philippines, the only country in the region with a predominantly Roman Catholic population, was naturally its first choice.
Spanish Dominican priest Father Laurentino Garcia of the Santo Cristo Parish, who is now a member of the home’s board of advisers, helped the congregation’s Mother General find the property in a residential area off F. Blumentritt Street in San Juan.
“It was supposed to be a business establishment,” Sister Isabel says, but the company changed its mind. The property has a high elevation, a must in flood-prone San Juan, and the home now occupies almost a hectare as the neighboring properties were also sold to the congregation.
The main building has five floors. The residents stay on the second and third floors and have use of two elevators.
Residents are referred by bishops, priests, the police, or social workers. A social worker helps the congregation determine if a person is truly without families or relatives willing to care for them. A few have been entrusted to the home’s care because the family had to relocate to another place or go abroad.
Sister Isabel happily recalls that “one resident spent a month abroad, after her family migrated, so she can meet her grandchildren.”
It is important that the prospective resident really wants to be under the care of the congregation. It is “one of our first requirements,” Sister Isabel says.
The home accepts people with serious physical ailments—Alzheimer’s disease or paralysis, among others—but not those with mental disabilities. “We have nurses, but no [resident] doctors. We do not have a psychiatrist,” Sister Isabel explains. But the home will help find a suitable place for the mentally disabled.
Ailing residents are taken for treatment to the San Juan Medical Center, which is always “available for our residents and really helpful in their needs,” says Sister Fatima, one of the seven nuns at the home. The San Juan government, in general, “is very caring and available for the lolas,” she says.
Lolas who have families who can pay for medical care are taken to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Manila.
‘Family of God’
The San Juan home opened with five nuns and six abandoned elderly people. Some of the pioneers, according to Sister Fatima, are still at the home, having lived there for 10-11 years. “One of our objectives is that the home become a family of God, where all of us experience His love and mercy,” she says.
Another home has just been opened in Tagaytay City, which accepts both men and women. It is run by five nuns and now has 29 residents.
Bible studies are part of the home’s routines, in addition to exercise and talks by experts and religious, but Sister Isabel says a resident does not have to be a Catholic to gain admission.
Now that the public health situation is gradually returning to normal, with the number of Covid-19 cases dropping significantly, the congregation is bracing for new worries. “Filipinos have been very generous,” Sister Isabel says, “but it is difficult to provide for everything the lolas need.”
Donations in kind, like fresh vegetables, are very welcome, but the nuns are hoping to receive help for the purchase of maintenance medicines. The residents, because of their age and chronic ailments, need daily doses of specific medicines that are more expensive than ordinary drugs.
Then there is also the payment for utilities. Sister Isabel says that even if the home is in a residential area, it is assessed as a commercial site and assigned corresponding rates by the Manila Electric Co. because of the size of the complex. With about 100 residents, seven nuns and 20 staff members, the home has to pay a monthly power bill of P100,000-P145,000.
The nuns can have the classification changed if they can submit three different permits. Sister Isabel says they have secured two, but “it is very difficult to get the third because it costs a lot. There are so many documents to submit.”
As the home prepares to resume normal operations, the nuns are hoping that the vaunted Filipino generosity will once again see them through. In addition to cash and donations in kind, they also hope to link up with groups that can provide activities and gifts to keep the residents mentally and physically active, like arts and crafts classes, coloring books and puzzles.
The home is on R. Pascual Street, San Juan City; tel. nos. 87211143 and 87211146, mobile nos. 09154860911 and 09152381462; email address [email protected].
Donations may be made to the Little Sisters for the Abandoned Elderly through the BPI Family Savings Bank (San Juan City), account no. 6111 0455 83, or GCash 09776942464 (Necy Mantilla).
This article first appeared in February in the weekly OpinYon.