Photo by Ceci dos Santos
Joan visiting Amics member Eugenia on Sant Jordi Day earlier this year.
Earlier this year I decided to start volunteering in Barcelona, ideally with a group helping the elderly because, of all the marginalised groups in society, they are the group I have the most experience and rapport with.
I registered with hacesfalta, a volunteering website, and found the address of the Catalan Federation of Social volunteering (Federació Catalana de Voluntariat Social). On my way to visit them, by coincidence, I came across exactly what I was looking for—the offices of Amics de la Gent Gran (Friends of the Elderly), a non-profit organisation committed to relieving social isolation and loneliness amongst the elderly.
They have sister groups in countries including France, Switzerland, Ireland, the US, Mexico and Canada, and here in Catalunya, they receive funding from sources such as the Spanish and Catalan governments, savings banks and private donations. At present, the volunteers of Amics support 872 old people in Catalunya in varying capacities, the most common of which is home visits.
THE HARSH REALITY—WHY VOLUNTEERS ARE BADLY NEEDED
The increase in life expectancy has meant that never before have people been living so long in such great numbers. In Catalunya, according to Amics de la Gent Gran, there are 1,265,442 people over the age of 65 (16.8 percent of the total population) and 250,000 live alone. Of that number, 150,000 suffer from loneliness. In my work with Amics, I have met many women who used to sit in their room crying, mourning the deaths of loved ones or overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness or boredom.
Another huge issue for the elderly is health. Many in this age group have a number of such issues, both physical and mental, that leave them unable to attend day centres or take part in social events. A significant number suffer from depressive symptoms and aspects of senile dementia, and receive only basic economic resources. Ten percent of older people in Barcelona live in houses constructed before 1900.
At the time of writing, 69 elderly people were on a waiting list hoping to be assigned an Amics volunteer to start visiting them and the Catalan Social Services department is continually referring more people to the charity.
For me, volunteering is never a one-sided relationship. I have volunteered with elderly people before, in the UK, and I do it for many reasons. Mainly because I have a huge sympathy for and empathy with them. I have seen how completely alone and forgotten many of them are.
But I also do it because I enjoy it. I laugh a lot. I learn a lot. It’s a cliché, but whatever I give I always get back tenfold. The rewards are instantly gratifying and also slow-burning.
The woman I visit here is called Carmen, who is 88 years old. In the beginning, when we met, she was very shy. She is an only child and never married; she lived with her parents until they died and now, as her three best friends have died, she is completely alone. She had become accustomed to her own company and had cynically ‘given up’ on people. However, I have seen how Carmen has slowly welcomed me into her life, and she now opens the door for me with a smile on her face and wearing a lovely dress.
I have no living grandparents and only ever knew one grandmother. Likewise, I have no family in Spain. I feel this organisation has given me a little taste of family here in Barcelona, while many times I have heard members say that their volunteers are like children to them and that Amics is their family. Carmen takes an avid interest in my life. She is always encouraging me to get out of bed on Saturdays and take those trips to Banyoles or Empùries that I always talk about doing and never do. I feel that she is urging me to do these things not just for me but for the joy she will have when I come back with stories and photos. She has seen all my travels from my laptop (the first one she ever saw in her life).
Her mobility is poor and unfortunately I can’t take her round the corner of her house to have a coffee in the beautiful Plaça Sant Pere (we live in the same neighbourhood) but she does advise me wryly about my dating and tells me many stories from her life. Her father was injured in the blast on Gran Via and Balmes in 1938 when Italian planes dropped bombs on the city, while her uncles were beaten by the police after they were heard speaking Catalan. She tells me what happened on my street in the Forties, explains whose face is on the statue near my house and what he did.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for foreigners who already have a decent level of Castilian or Catalan to better their fluency as well as become educated in local history from someone with first-hand knowledge,” said Albert Quiles, Coordinator of the Volunteering and Human Resources Department in Amics. “It really is a unique way of integrating with a local and making a difference. Ten percent of our current volunteers are from abroad.”
I don’t speak Catalan yet and whilst many members would prefer to speak it, I have come across no problems in speaking Castilian with them. Indeed, my communication skills have improved a lot and we animate each other. Carmen has broken her habit of solitude.
WHAT VOLUNTEERS DO
I have met other Amics volunteers and they offer help depending on their preferences and availability. The home visits are typically for two hours weekly. For those with less time, there are opportunities to accompany members sporadically when they need to go to the doctor or do errands. It’s possible to help out fortnightly or monthly at literary gatherings in the home of a member, with conversation, songs and games. There are periodic light lunches and trips to the park or theatre. Volunteers can also visit terminally ill members in their home. Each year, Amics organises a summer trip out of the city for which volunteers are gratefully welcomed.
This year, Amics organised a campaign for the celebration of Sant Jordi through which all members received a rose and a book. I took part and delivered the gifts to three members. One of the ladies, Dolores, lives alone in Sants and not long after I entered her old apartment, she broke down—with joy on seeing me and receiving the gifts but also because both her sons had died tragically many years ago and the grief was still very raw. She could have talked all day and I felt sad to have to leave her.
THE VOLUNTEER SELECTION PROCESS
To begin with, volunteers need to have a genuine empathy for the elderly and have good emotional well-being. The process starts with an hour-long presentation about the organisation followed by an interview where applicants talk about their personality, experiences, current situation and motives. Amics has special criteria in place that aim to protect the safety and security of each elderly person who is a member of the organisation. A few weeks after my interview, a match was made between my personality and location and Carmen’s. Following my initial meeting with Carmen, which was attended by a representative from Amics, I started my regular visits with her.
HOW TO SIGN UP FOR A VOLUNTEER
For an older person to receive assistance from Amics, the first port of call is either their local Social Services department, their CAP (doctor’s surgery) or the Home Care and Support teams (Programa d’Atenció Domiciliària i Equips de Suport, run by the Generalitat healthcare department). Assessments will be made based on degree of isolation, degree of physical autonomy and access to local resources.
I am so glad to have come across this organisation as they are some of the warmest, most open and kindest people I have met here in Barcelona. There is so much underneath the appearance of an older individual: talents that lie dormant, deep sincerity and appreciation; singing voices and dance moves that put me to shame. I am constantly reminded of the impact I have made on Carmen. The harsh fact about cities is that someone could be dying in the flat next to ours and we would never know—and as someone from the countryside of Ireland, that’s difficult to comprehend.
I remember how lonely I was when I first moved here and the difference that meeting one friend made. Barcelona has been very good to me and I’m delighted to give my ‘granito de arena’ back to it.
To find out about becoming a volunteer for Amics de la Gent Gran, contact Albert or Nuria at email@example.com, or call their offices on 93 207 6773. www.amicsdelagentgran.org