The residency of the Catholic Order of San Juan de Dios, located on calle Sagasta, in the monumental heart of Seville, is home to 80 residents, all in their seventies, eighties, nineties and even beyond. Just as important as the residents and the workers are the 32 volunteers who make many of the activities organized at the residency possible: people with jobs, lives and families of their own who have come together to form a unique family.
The days of the residents are filled with cultural and learning activities, therapy sessions, outings and walks—whether it is coloring to exercise their dexterity, playing memory games, listening to music, attending religious services or practicing Chi-Kung (an ancient Chinese physical and mental practice similar to Tai Chi); there is always something to do. The halls echo with conversation while residents and workers mill about this fully renovated 16th century hospital, ornately decorated with grand depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and biblical characters, as well as with posters that show the work that the Order carries out in other parts of the world. Tonight, is Bingo Night, which, according to Rocío Leiva, the residence’s Coordinator of Volunteering, is one of the favorite activities of residents and volunteers alike. As some residents finish up their Chi-Kung session before Bingo Night, three of the volunteers tell us about their rewarding experience at San Juan de Dios.
“I am going to say something that’ll make me sound like an idiot,” says Javier Valerio, 68, switching from Spanish to English. Though he acquired plenty of practice traveling as an electrical engineer, he fears that his English may now be a little rusty. “When I am here, it’s like this,”—he flaps his arms like a bird—“it is like I am flying.” Javier’s grey hair is parted neatly and his white volunteer coat is crisp, the words “Voluntario San Juan De Dios” printed in blue on the front pocket. He has been volunteering at the residence for two and half years now—in fact, he recalls the exact day he began: Javier retired on September 31st, 2014, and the very next day he started volunteering. He has not stopped since. Javier is an orderly man, well-kept, and keen when it comes to things like remembering dates. “I like to keep things under control, well organized.” But, he says, this is not the case when he comes to the residence, which is always buzzing with activity. Javier never imagined that he would spend his free time volunteering. His whole life was dedicated to work, but above all, to his wife of 38 years and two daughters, Alicia and María. From 7 am until 9 pm, Monday through Friday, Javier worked. He often traveled for business, having visited 27 countries around the world. But, his weekends were dedicated to his family. There was not a spare minute to spend. While family is what kept him from volunteering in the past, it ended up being what drew him towards the residency later on. Javier’s mentality underwent a “total transformation” when his mother fell and fractured her femur. She turned to a residency for help until she could take care of herself. Javier would visit often and began to become aware that many people at her residence lived lonely lives, without family or friends. One day, as he was visiting her, he decided “in the blink of an eye” that he needed to help those who could not help themselves.
The hospital order of San Juan de Dios is not restricted to assisting those in Seville. The reach of the order spans five continents and 53 countries, and this volunteer-fueled health care has been carried out since it was founded in 1539 in Granada. In Spain alone, there are 3,120 volunteers committed to the development of the lives of those afflicted with mental health issues, poverty, social exclusion and general disabilities, but the specific mission Seville residency seeks with their elderly are “accompaniment and humanization.”
Javier says that the residents of San Juan de Dios have found an environment that does just that: respect the value of the lives of the elderly. “They feel at home,” he emphasizes. Javier notes that he is not simply there to support them; the residents are also here to help him. “I believe there is some kind of symbiosis. They need us and we need them. It is something mutual.”
A raspy laugh escapes 59-year-old Práxedes Gonzalez’s bright pink lips while she chats with her comrades in the residence’s cafeteria. Her black ringlets bounce as she speaks. “We are absolute family here,” she says as her eyes, lined with electric blue, dance. The blouse beneath her white volunteer coat swirls with yellows, greens and oranges. Práxedes was introduced to the residency through her friend, Ana, and though she only began working last September, she’s already in love with her work here and has quickly become integrated into the family of San Juan de Dios. Práxedes speaks with liveliness and vigor, often emphasizing her words with short pauses. “The truth is that I am delighted.” As if there could be any doubt, she slowly spells every syllable of the last word: “En-can-ta-da.” Práxedes says that outside of the residency, she’s devoted to her family, her husband Teodosio and their namesakes, Práxedes, 33, and Teodosio, 29. Her husband owns a window installation company for which their son also works, and her duty has been to take care of her children and her parents for years.
While Práxedes’ family is tight-knit, she says that caring for her elderly mother for over 18 years is what led her to eventually volunteer at the residence. “I was with her until the very last moment,” says Práxedes, whose respect and love for the elderly gave way naturally to her work at the residence, leading her to also love her Wednesday-night Bingo visits. She wanted to make sure that the men and women of the residence had someone there to care for them the same way that she was there to care for her mother.
“I needed to fill the void,” says Rocio Jurado Ojeda, sitting just to the right of Práxedes, eyes beneath her wire-framed classes. She is 57 years old and has four children. While Javier and Práxedes have the privilege of nearby family, Rocío does not have the same luxury. She comes from a family that has long been involved in the military. Her children are sprawled around the globe, three of the four currently following in the footsteps of the family’s military tradition. The first of her children, Carla, 31, currently resides in Mallorca and studies Law. Ignacio, 29, is stationed in Iraq as a Regular Lieutenant in the Spanish Army, and is returning to get married in August. Pedro, 26, the third eldest and a bit of a rascal according to Rocío, has adopted a new life as part of the French Legion and has lived there for the past three years. He is currently on mission in Tahiti. The youngest child and her namesake, Rocío, 25, is enrolled in the General Military Academy of Zaragoza. While she lives happily with her husband, Rocío came to the residency with hopes of filling the time she had due to the absence of her children—the residency has become her family away from family. “I’m always fulfilled when I return home.”
Now, Rocío has ties to her biological family at the residence as well. Her mother, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was admitted to the residency a year and a half into her volunteer experience, making it a place for family in an even more literal sense. She says that while she feels she has lost a part of her mother to Alzheimers, her Bingo Night visits help revitalize the relationship. The residency has provided a space for her to take the focus off what occupies her mind during the day. “I’m less selfish because I cannot always think about my own problems, because I have many, many problems,” says Rocío, for whom the residency has become a place of healing and comfort. “I feel complete.”
A mother’s fractured femur, a lifetime of caring for parents, and children all across the world have led Javier, Práxedes and Rocío to the residency. While their own families have been their inspiration to volunteer, Coordinator of Volunteering Rocío explains what truly connects them with the mission of San Juan de Dios: “The reality is that the volunteers are not just friends of the residents—they are their caring family.”