San Diego Last winter's rains have greened the empty fields and rutted the dirt roads of La Gloria. The area, on the southern outskirts of Tijuana along the free road to Ensenada, is an odd mixture of waning agriculture and waxing wealth. Beside olive groves long untended stand brightly colored mansionettes surrounded by high walls with heavy iron gates. Across the street from one such abode sits the Agnes Lester home for the elderly.
Four nuns of the Carmelites of the Sacred Heart based in Guadalajara run the facility, which is home to 28 seniors. Some were placed there by their families who could no longer care for them. "And then there are others," explains Sister Alicia Gomez, "that don't have any relatives, or there is no way to find out if they have any or not. They live on the street or at the bus stations, living under horrible conditions."
Then there are the least fortunate of the Agnes Lester residents; those who have family but were abandoned by them. Sister Gomez is an energetic woman in her late 30s with light-brown eyes and the happy countenance of a woman who has spent her life serving others. But her usual smile disappears when she speaks of abandoned elderly. "It's an ongoing problem," she says. "Their own relatives sometimes kick them out, they sell their property out from under them, and then they just want to get rid of them."
Sister Gomez says the home receives "several calls each week from social workers, the police, hospitals" seeking to place abandoned personas mayores. "They find them," she explains, "and they don't know where to take them."
Margarita Williams is a social worker for the Tijuana branch of the federal agency Desarollo Integral de la Familia ("integral development of the family"), known universally in Mexico by the acronym DIF (pronounced deef). She works with the elderly and, when asked, acknowledges that Tijuana has a problem with elderly abandonment, "We get a lot of reports, either from relatives or neighbors, that there is an elderly person either being abused, neglected, and sometimes abandoned."
She adds, "It's the same all around Mexico."
But Sister Gomez thinks the problem of abandoned elderly is more of a border phenomenon. "Because there is a lot of migration," she explains, "there are people that came by themselves, either recently or many years ago, thinking they would cross the border into the United States. Instead, they stayed here by themselves and live forever and ever, and then eventually they get old, and they've lost all contact with the family they left in Michoacán or Chiapas or wherever. We even have two Central Americans and one person from Argentina here. In the other case," Sister Gomez continues, "the relatives are really trying to get rid of them so they can cross the border."
Most of the residents, she says, understand that they've been abandoned, "which is very sad." Even sadder is when they don't. "We have a woman here," Sister Gomez closes her eyes and shakes her head slowly, "who insists on seeing her son. She keeps her bags packed because she thinks her son is coming to pick her up any day. But in reality what happened is, three years ago, the son kicked her out, sold her house, and then left for the United States. It's very sad."
Margarita Willams, a stylishly dressed woman in her 40s, coordinates a system of "Happiness Clubs" for the elderly throughout the city. The clubs, with a collective membership of around 1600, hold dances and socials as well as seminars on such subjects as eating well, staying active, and maintaining a sense of purpose. They also advise on their rights as property owners. "I tell my old people," Williams says, "'Don't sign anything.' In fact, just today, one of the ladies that comes to the center told me that one of her daughters asked her to sign a document which used her house and a piece of property as collateral so that the daughter could open a new business. And I said, 'No, no, don't do that!' We have a saying, 'Don't give your children their inheritance while you're still alive.' "
That idea, Williams says, is somewhat contrary to Mexican custom. Traditionally, when a couple becomes too old to work, their children take care of them. "And a lot of them don't have any pension or any kind of income," she says. "They depend on their relatives; in this case, their sons and daughters who confuse them a little bit and say, 'Well, you have this property, but you are living with me. You have no income, I am feeding you, I am cleaning for you, so I need for you to give me something in return. Eventually it is going to be mine anyway, so why don't you give it to me now.' But, these days you don't know their intentions."
Williams adds, "It's not that everyone is trying to exploit their parents. Normally, the traditional system works out well. But my work is to protect and to advise older people, and that's why, as a standard, we advise against signing away their property."
And Williams, who semiannually meets with her counterparts from other cities in Mexico, has found out that traditions aren't as universal along the northern border. "I've been surprised," she says, "to learn that, especially in the interior of Mexico, that the old man or woman are still the patriarchs and matriarchs. Family members still go and see them and ask for advice. They are sort of revered within the family. I feel that my old people have more problems than the ones from the interior."
Because that place of veneration in the family is less prevalent along the border, Williams says they stress physical and mental activity at their Happiness Club meeting. "Otherwise, they will stay at home and watch television all of the time, and then they will decline. So we do trips, they have a dance once a week, they have yoga, tai-chi, singing, chorus. We also offer the basics of reading and writing because a lot of them never learned. It is all to make them feel good, that being old is not necessarily a bad thing."
Sister Socorro Estrada at the Agnes Lester house describes how dealing with her residents' feelings of worthlessness, most of whom will be there until they die, is a full-time challenge. "First of all, we encourage them to pray," she says. "And we also encourage them to help out around the house. And to fight against sadness, we go to the Happiness Clubs, and we do a lot of singing and dancing around the house."