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The Family Keeps Shrinking

A Puerto Rican Grandmother's Lonely Old Age

New America Media/La Raza, News Feature, Fabiola Pomareda, Translated and Edited by David Boddiger Posted: Sep 23, 2009

Editors Note: At age 82, and far from her native Puerto Rico, Mara Guadalupe Santiago, lives alone in Chicago. Despite visits from her son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Lupe is typical of many isolated Latino elders described in a new study on Growing Old in America showing that 35 percent of Hispanic seniors report suffering from depression, compared to 20 percent of those in other demographic groups. But thanks to a community program, now has an extended family, including frequent visits from Penlope Castejn, age 29, aerobics classes and other activities to keep her health and active. Reporter Fabiola Pomareda posted this article in Spanish at La Raza Newspaper. She is a New America Media Fellow on the Ethnic Elders Newsbeat, sponsored by The Atlantic Philanthropies. English translation by David Boddiger.

CHICAGO, IL - By 1948, Mara Guadalupe Santiago was already married, had a son and was pregnant with her second child. Her husband had moved to the Chicago suburb of Waukegan to live and work while Guadalupe stayed behind in Puerto Rico.

One year later, her husband visited Puerto Rico to meet his new son. Guadalupe had some news: I cant stay here, she remembers telling him.

We were in the middle of an economic depression and the situation was very difficult, explains Guadalupe, who was born in the Puerto Rican municipality of Arecibo 82 years ago. Shortly thereafter, I left my two children [with their grandmother] and came [to Chicago], she said.

Her first job was selling suits at a store on the corner of Western and Wabansia. For her work, Guadalupe was paid 69 cents an hour. She found a better-paying job, one that generated enough savings for her to send for her two sons to join her in Chicago.

With the family reunited, Chicago would be their home for the next 10 years. But over time, Guadalupes relationship with her husband grew strained and the couple drifted apart. They were eventually separated for good, and Guadalupe returned to the island, her two sons in tow.

Back in Puerto Rico, Guadalupe prepared and sold lunches to people she knew in the neighborhood, a good enough business that with her earnings she would be able to send her kids to college.

Ten years passed and then, unexpectedly, her ex-husband came calling. Their passion rekindled and the couple would be married for a second time. But the renewed vow didnt last and Guadalupe and her husband separated again. She never remarried.

A Promise

We first met Guadalupe at a Chicago center called Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly (LBFE), a local organization dedicated to helping elderly residents overcome isolation and loneliness, a common problem among Guadalupes age group.

According to census data from 2000, nearly half of Chicago seniors older than 70 live without family or friends nearby. Without a social support network, seniors can find it difficult to lead active lifestyles with limited resources and often with failing health.

The LBFE center helps fill the void by hosting birthday and holiday parties, book and movie clubs, and by donating food. For 50 years, some 1,500 volunteers have visited with seniors, helped them on errands and accompanied them to social activities. They also help group members move, and solve problems that may arise at their homes or apartments with their landlords.

We make them a promise, that we will be with them until the end, because the reality is that often we are the only people they have, says LBFE spokesperson Nancy Marple. We basically try to do everything a friend would do for them.

Good Company

Guadalupe has participated in the program for the past year at no cost. Penlope Castejn, a 29-year-old volunteer from Madrid, Spain, visits with Guadalupe and 20 other Spanish-speaking seniors throughout the week.

Dressed in a rose-colored blouse and pants, gold earrings and comfortable shoes, her hair shiny silver, Guadalupe radiates, a wide smile stretching across her face. She says she first heard about LBFE from a neighbor at the senior building where she lives, who put her in contact with Sister Margie, who coordinates outreach to Hispanic seniors.

Sister Margie came to visit one day and helped me fill out the paperwork, says Guadalupe.

Penlope takes Guadalupe shopping, to lunch, and to the LBFE gatherings. Their mutual fondness is clear.

You should see how Lupe cooks, remarks Penlope. Puerto Rican pasteles are her specialty, but she also makes arroz con gandules, arroz con pollo and the most delicious cakes.

Like Family

Guadalupe first learned to drive an automobile in 1954. Being told not to drive anymore wasnt easy for her, but in 2003 Guadalupe was involved in an accident she says was caused by another driver talking on a mobile phone. She hasnt driven since, and the lost autonomy makes her feel sad.

Plus she hasnt been feeling well recently. The years dont pass lightly, she says. Our bones are just like cars. They rust. Guadalupe complains of kidney stones, arthritis, and a nagging pain in her legs. Nonetheless, she attends an aerobics class at Casa Central, another local organization that holds activities for seniors.

One son, she says, visits her regularly. Her other son passed away. Guadalupe is a proud great grandmother, with four grandchildren and three great grandchildren. She came from a big family with six brothers and three sisters and thankfully, she says, three of her sisters and a brother are still alive.

The family keeps shrinking, she says, quickly adding that the LBFE volunteers are an extended family. They really help, they give me moral and emotional support. Before I would only go to mass with neighbors or visit my son. But now (volunteers) take me out, they call me to see how Im doing. They are like family and they are a blessing to people like me, she says.

Growing Old

Guadalupes story is in many ways typical. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 35 percent of Hispanic seniors say they suffer from depression, compared to 20 percent of seniors from other demographics.

The study, Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality, also notes that Hispanic seniors tend to feel they are a burden on others. Less than half say they are active in their community.

One way people can get involved in the LBFE program is through referral. One of the more common situations is when someone refers a fellow member of their church congregation, says Marple, the organizations spokesperson. When that happens, a member of the LBFE staff evaluates the interested person to see how much social interaction they have each week. Staff members also confirm that the person resides in Chicago and is at least 70.

Today, LBFE assists 1,000 people, and 193 of them are Hispanic. Of those, 35 percent speak Spanish as a primary language.

If you are interested in participating in the program, either as a volunteer or as a senior citizen, call (312) 455-1000 or visit www.littlebrotherschicago.org.

Meanwhile, Guadalupe and Penlope reminisce about a recent outing that LBFE members took to a countryside retreat in Rochelle, Illinois.

We had nothing but fun, says Penlope. We cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner, played dominoes and cards, we danced and went on trips to the casino and to second-hand stores, she said.

And we dressed up like princesses, Guadalupe adds with a laugh.

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