Sounds like a set up for a classic—albeit strange—joke.
And there often were moments of comedy for me—the aspiring sailor, volunteering at the “Asilo Nursing Home,” in Bocas del Toro, Panama.
I had come to help fix up boats for Floating Doctors, and I ended up spending a majority of my time at the Asilo. I often worked alongside Tomas, the Buddhist monk—and Jean, the retired nurse. Both Tomas and Jean have given endless love and support to the elderly residents.
The day I met Jean (my personal hero), she was wearing a fanny pack and bustling around the med room at the nursing home. She was new, but she knew her stuff, so she wanted to start making changes to the way medicine was dispersed and how things were done.
When she turned to look at me and introduce herself, she was filled with so much light, I kind of stepped back a little to make room for all that she was. That’s Jean.
Her passion is with the residents of the Asilo Nursing Home. Asilo—meaning asylum in Spanish, which it absolutely is.
It is truly a refuge for the people who the world has forgotten. The roughly 25 residents live side by side, the entire contents of their lives stacked up beside their beds. As a boat volunteer, I felt I had little business helping out at this home, but I was quickly taken in by Jean and trained to give basic medicine and coconut oil massages.
At first I was daunted about rubbing people’s legs with oil, but once I saw the happiness they got from touch, it was business time. I snapped on my gloves and started the rubdowns. And while I worked, I heard snippets of stories from the residents—both from Tomas and Jean.
There was a woman who was found in an alley after escaping a pack of dogs. There was Candido, who was so sick from pesticide exposure after years of working on a banana farm, that all he did was sit on the couch near the television. He often cried or needed help lacing up his work boots, which he still wore faithfully.
There was Evelyn, who was so tiny that she reminded me of a hummingbird. She sat in a wheelchair facing that same television, until a volunteer decided she could walk and would walk for him. Through Jean and Tomas’ encouragement, the volunteer had Evelyn doing laps around the home. She giggled and padded around, satisfied only when she could stop at her rocking chair which faced the ocean. Evelyn would shake maracas and sing, sometimes with tears streaming down her face.
Then there was Gladys—a true character. Her main goal seemed to be getting involved in whatever action was taking place. If there were musicians playing, she was on the dance floor. If a visitor arrived, she was first at the door to greet them. That woman made me laugh every single time I saw her. And there were 20 or so other residents who I could tell similar stories about.
Care and attention were vital in keeping spirits up at Asilo. The building is old and worn—imagine a falling apart elementary school, whose electricity goes out often, because there is no one to pay the bill. There are old sinks that line the pathway inside and a faint smell, that I have yet to pinpoint, that permeates the air inside. It is easy to get swept away in the bleak sadness of this place—in these stories.
Enter Jean. She bustles in, coaxing her patients to take their meds. She picked up enough Spanish, within a month, to be able to chat and joke with everyone in the place. Sometimes she will just laugh at the overwhelming nature of the problems at Asilo, because there’s nothing else she can do.
She organizes field trips to the park and musical ice cream parties (which she funds from her own pocket), where everyone can get up and boogie. She can’t help but inject joy into every situation, and it is obvious in the way each resident comes to life when she’s around.
Jean and the other caregivers at Asilo have given them a reminder that just because you are old, it doesn’t mean life is over. Just because you were once forgotten, doesn’t mean someone won’t remember you.
At one point, I went to a funeral of an Asilo resident. Jean was there and so was Tomas. The funeral customs of Panama stood out to me, while I held an umbrella over Luis’s head to shield him from the blazing sun.
Every single person attending had to put a fistful of dirt over the coffin. This ritual seemed to pacify the saddened residents. It struck me as a gentle and beautiful way to make sure that the person who had died was being handed back to the earth by the people who’d cared for them.
A few weeks later, I was staying at Jean’s place on the sea, with the purple walls. We talked about life stuff—and love. And something she said really made me think.
She smiled at me, with a wise “70-year-old woman who has seen some life” smile and said, “Sometimes, it takes people a long time to realize how much you matter to them. And they may never get it. But as long as you know it, you will always be happy. And if they come around, you will be even happier. But you never put your life on hold.”
Then she winked at me, and I realized she might be the wisest person in the world.
Because she doesn’t treat her residents with all that love with any expectation that they will care back. She just goes on loving them, because it makes sense to her.
Author: Erin Johnson
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photos: Flickr/M M; author’s own.