A lesson on life from Guatemala

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Liza dancing with a resident at a nursing home in Guatemala.
Liza dancing with a resident at a nursing home in Guatemala.

As Thanksgiving comes around, I think back to my volunteer experience in Guatemala City last summer. There, I was reminded about the importance of taking time to enjoy life—wherever you happen to be.

In August, I worked for one week at Hospital de Ortopedia y Rehabilitacion, a physical rehab center that also served as a home for older adults. I worked on behalf of a nonprofit global organization called Cross-Cultural Solutions.

During the week we were there, our group, composed of women from all over the United States, split our time between painting a mural in a physical rehab room for children and spending time with the elderly.

Painting was fun and quite therapeutic actually, but I found immense pleasure in spending time with the adults—listening to them talk about this or that, playing Spanish bingo and dancing with the seniors to Latin music.

As you might expect in a developing country, the nursing home was not quite up to the quality-of-life standards of the United States. The living quarters were a version of our old “rest homes,” sort of a military barracks style. Each person had a bed and a dresser, next to each other, down the length of the room. Many of the residents, who were mostly women, lived there because they were single (“soltera”) and did not have children to take care of them. Some of them functioned independently while others certainly needed skilled care.

I enjoyed being around them. Like many older adults living in long-term care communities, they craved attention and love. It felt good to know we were needed.

There were some precious moments. One of the residents worked with me to address a letter to a former volunteer from the United States. (Given my limited Spanish, this was harder than you might think.) Every day I visited she wanted to know if I had sent it yet. She showed me the volunteer's picture, among others, that were in her dresser.

Another wonderful memory was dancing with the adults to Latin music in the courtyard. As a DJ spun tunes in the corner, I danced with a woman who knew every dance and kept time like she was still a professional. It was hard to keep up with her!

Others—who wanted to dance but were clearly inhibited—brought tears to my eyes. One man who was partly paralyzed insisted on being pulled out of his wheelchair to move.

It was comforting to be around people who could experience joy and knew how to "live it up" when they got the chance. They were not always happy. Being old and shut away from the outside world is not easy. Yet, most didn't complain and some said they didn't mind living there.

If you have traveled abroad, you might, like I, take a piece of the country back home with you. What I learned from these older adults is the beauty of living with an open heart and spirit. It's something I think we overlook sometimes in the United States, where work and productivity tend to rule our lives.

It certainly is a good reminder this Thanksgiving and holiday season. Hope your Thanksgivings are filled with lots of love, kindness and open spirits!
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McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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