Meet an Aging Studies Major

Our majors have a wide range of reasons for choosing Aging Studies, and equally diverse plans for future careers. We have great students in our program and we want to share them with you.

This latest installment was written by Sarah Harty, aging studies major and class of 2014, in which she describes her two-week experience in summer 2013, which she spent volunteering in a long-term care facility in Costa Rica.

Mariposa: A Costa Rican Experience in Long-Term Care

“Por favor, traerla a la mariposa…” I grabbed hold of Margarita’s arm as we embarked on the short journey from the occupational therapy room to the butterfly (mariposa in Spanish) wing of the nursing home. The air was breezy and warm as we made our way down the open hallway. To the right of us were acres and acres of green space, and to the left a beautiful church. Residents speckled the open facility, happily enjoying the tropical environment that was their home. This was Costa Rica, after all: the country of rice, beans, and no worries.

The long-term-care facility where I volunteered for two weeks was located in Heredia, a small suburb near the country’s capital, San Jose. The facility was very airy and open, with a lot of green space. Eighty-five residents lived in the facility, staffed by one physical therapist, one occupational therapist, one doctor who worked only on Wednesdays, and many nurses. Their meals consisted of fresh Costa Rican cuisine: delicious fruits and vegetables, rice, beans, and a lot of avocados. Everything was fresh and made with love.

My time in Costa Rica was marked by small acts of kindness by residents, and the constant frustration of communicating only in Spanish. In retrospect, it hadn’t sounded too shabby. I had taken six years of Spanish in high school, and felt properly equipped for the challenge. Once I embarked on my two-week trek, my feelings quickly changed. Nobody knew English. Literally, nobody. So Spanish it was.

I communicated with hand gestures and the little Spanish that I did remember. I worked alongside an Occupational Therapist named Marisa, who worked every day from 8 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon. She was the only occupational therapist, but she was an incredible one. She had activities planned every day, usually consisting of different crafts depending on the ability levels of the residents. I would help with the crafts, sitting with residents every day and getting to know them as much as I could. After they were finished with their activities, I would bring them back to their particular wings in the facility. Their rooms were always very clean and tidy, as different Resident Aid’s cleaned them daily.

The facility itself was quite old fashioned. It was not modern in any regard. The occupational therapy room consisted of recycled items, while the physical therapy room had mostly makeshift machines. This facility would never compare favorably to one in the U.S. But in reality, it was the nicest facility I have ever encountered, because it was the first where there was no question that the caregivers and workers had compassion for the people they served. Each and every person who worked there radiated with care, compassion and love for the residents. They not only worked there—they truly wanted to be there. They wanted these residents to love where they live and love who they are. Everyday I was in disbelief watching the caregivers and professionals treat each and every resident with the utmost respect and dignity.

This was also a sad concept. Why was I so surprised? Why can’t nursing homes in the U.S be like this? This isn’t to say that I have not encountered beautiful, selfless beings who work in nursing homes in the U.S, but I just haven’t met that many of them.

My Ithaca College gerontology classes helped to shape me and guide me through my two weeks in Costa Rica. The part I enjoy the most in my major is the fact that our curriculum moves us out to the community. We have fieldwork classes, internships, independent studies, and countless field trips that immerse us in Ithaca’s long-term care facilities. This curriculum has been a gift in many aspects of my life, and the professors who have helped make this happen have been an even greater gift. With that said, I felt well-prepared for my Costa Rica adventure as a result of this.

 “Listo chica!” Margarita, although blind, led me to her room without question; she knew the way by heart. She talked to me non-stop in Spanish during our daily walks, teaching me words, and I would teach her English. She was one of the happiest, most energetic residents at this facility. She was fully capable both physically and mentally, aside from her eyesight. And so we walked. We would walk and talk and laugh at each other’s awkward attempts at communication.

“Bolso.” “B-o-l-s-o.” She repeated the word slowly, making sure I understood and was able to repeat it. Margarita stood before me, clutching a tiny, pink change purse.

“Para Usted. acuérdate de mí cuando se utiliza.” This I understood. This was a gift for me, from her and she wanted me to remember her each time I used it. Tiny gestures like this were what shaped the most incredible and memorable experience I have had thus far in aging studies. I miss this place, these people, and their kindness every day.

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