Wednesday, July 9, 2014

FEATURE | A state of grace for the elderly #28StoriesofGiving


By EPI FABONAN III. To grow old with dignity is the ultimate geriatric dream all of us have. We want our bodies to turn wrinkly, fragile, and senile under the best care of our loved ones. The worst nightmare would be a state of utter deprivation and isolation from the very people we reared and loved our entire lives. This is why, for a country that takes pride in close family ties and respect for the elderly, it is common for families to keep on living with and caring for grandparents until their last breath.

But behind the Philippines’ largest shopping mall—hidden from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives—lies a place where some of the country’s elderly go to wait for absolution. No, they are not sinners; these senior citizens were once lost in the streets of megapolitan Manila in search of missing loved ones or of a dignity they wish to regain; some of them, imprisoned by their very minds or frail bodies.

The place they live inwas once called Golden Acres or Ginintuang Paligid, a facility for the elderly established in 1969 as part of the Marcos administration’s social welfare program. Now, it is called GRACES or Golden Reception and Action Center for the Elderly and Other Special Cases. The original Golden Acres has been transferred to Tanay, Rizal, and is now named Haven for the Elderly.

Every day, the facility receives a number of senior citizens rescued from the streets by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) or by different LGUs. But sometimes, families themselves turn over their elderly to the facility as they could no longer bear the responsibility of taking care of them. A total of 175 older persons are housed in the facility with a capacity of only 150.

Johnny Reyes, 82, is one of the elderly recently admitted at the facility. He was found sleeping in the area of Quiapo Church on May 17.

Nagpunta ako dito sa Manila kasi hinahanap ko yung anak kong lalake. Sabi sa akin nasa Meycauayan (Bulacan) daw siya. Pero nung nagpunta ako doon, di ko naman siya nakita. Nakitira ako sa pinsan ko sa may Quiapo pero di rin ako nagtagal dun kasi nahiya din ako,” Reyes says.

Reyes once worked as a furniture maker in Canada for a large office and home furniture company before returning to his hometown of Aloguinsan, Cebu, where he continued his craft until retirement. He says he has not seen his son for 25 years after the latter left Cebu. He also left a daughter in Canada who he hasn’t seen in 32 years. His relatives in the province are not aware that he has been staying at GRACES.

Handling Reyes’ case is Abi Nur Haqq Alonto, 26, one of five social workersin GRACES working to bring the elderly backto a state of grace. He has been with the facility for two years now. Aside from Lolo Johnny, he also handles 43 other senior citizen cases. He explains that since GRACES is only a diagnostic/assessment and processing center, admitted older persons cannot stay long in the facility and that part of his job is to trace the relatives of older persons so that s/he may be reunited with them and reintegrated to society.

“Our biggest challenge right now is locating the relatives of senior citizens turned over to us. While we coordinate this with the DSWD and different LGUs, more often than not, we don’t get results from our inquiries. Sometimes, we get disheartening results, such as when a relative refuses to take back an older person,” says Alonto. He adds that they have already coordinated with the Aloguinsan LGU who has located Lolo Johnny’s brothers-in-law.

When asked what inspired him to become a social worker, Alonto says, “I come from a family used to serving, being around people. Both my mother and sister are social workers while my father is a police colonel. I guess their experiences are what inspired me to take up social work in the first place. The dynamics of working with different people in various communities enlivens me.”

Some of GRACES’ buildings are already dilapidated and abandoned. The elderly and the paraplegic sleep in cottages with leaking roofs that bring cold nights and sweltering days. More often, the lack of decent beds forces them to sleep in makeshift cots, woven mats, or even pieces of cardboard. One can count with their fingers the number of working electric fans, fluorescent light bulbs, and wheelchairs. In a facility where the quarreling scents of sterility and old age can dampen one’s spirits, it is a wonder how Alonto remains steadfast.

“Sometimes it’s painful when some of the elderly would approach me, saying they want to go home. But because of our tracing limitations or their failing state of mind, we cannot let them go. There is only so much I can do. If only I have the power to bring them back to their families with just one click,” Alonto laments.

“Luckily, I have a family that is always understanding of what I do. Aside from the Lord God, they are my source of strength and inspiration not to give up.”

Such is Alonto’s passion in caring for the elderly that even as he supports the studies of a younger sibling and a nephew with his meager salary, he still puts a premium on his continuing mission with GRACES. Once, he was offered a clinical social worker job in New Zealand, but he immediately refused it out of love for the facility’s senior citizens. He even professes big dreams for the facility and the people it houses.

“Hopefully, in five or 10 years time, GRACES would be recognized in the Philippines as a diagnostic/assessment and processing facility and as an instrument for the empowerment of older persons (OPs) and persons-with-disabilities (PWDs),” Alonto says.

However, to realize Alonto’s dream for GRACES, entails restoring the facility to a state of grace. With their government funding depleted just for maintenance and operating expenses (such as food, medicines, utilities, and salaries), the facility needs additional financial support from private donors in order to improve the quality of life of older persons in the facility.

“It’s really hard for us when an older person gets sick or has an accident because we don’t have enough resources to pay for their hospitalization. We only make do with discounts we can tap from the social service units of every hospital, such as PCSO and PhilHealth, to save or revive our older persons and lessen their hospital expenses,” say Maria Cielo Agotilla, supervising social worker at GRACES.

“Aside from additional funding, the facility and its people can benefit from additional hospital beds, fans, PWD equipment (like stretchers, wheelchairs, canes, walkers, and crutches), tools for productive activities for the elderly (like sewing machines and gardening tools), as well as basic needs like food and toiletries. We are also looking for kind-hearted individuals who can sponsor the repair and rehabilitation of our dilapidated cottages, or even the donation of an ambulance to transport older persons to hospitals,” Agotilla adds.

But the social workers at GRACES know that more than material needs, the best gift donors can give to the facility’s elderly is time. Right now, only a few volunteers and some seminarians visit the facility on a non-regular basis.

“We encourage competent individuals with a background on elderly care to volunteer their time and services with us. Hopefully, we could also get volunteer doctors to visit twice or thrice a week to check-up on our patients,” a hopeful Agotilla expresses.

In a country that takes pride in having close family ties, it is disappointing to see how the elderly and the impaired have been neglected, even refused by the very peoplesupposed totake care of them. To praise and admire the devotion of the social workerskeeping the facility running is an understatement. The collective action of a just and concerned society is the only way we could dignify these heroes and bring GRACES back to a state of grace.

To learn more how you can help GRACES, you may call (02) 929-1187 or (0949) 361-0731. You can also email your inquiries at graces_ncr@yahoo.com or graces.ncr@gmail.com. More information is available in their Facebook account, GRACES DSWD-NCR.

Postscript: This is the unabridged edition of The Social Scientist's article in the Philippine STAR dated July 9, 2014. You may read the edited version here.

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