A Visit to Mis Corazones by Hillel Natanson
Mis Corazones is located in the old city center in Medellin, and is protected by a large metal security gate; a staff member unlocked the gate and let us in. From my first step into the building, I felt both a sense of high drama, and the presence of real caring and love. Instead of finding myself in a sanitized and predictably boring home for old people, I knew I was in a real home, a home in which each room was distinct, a place where human beings lived and shared their lives – in other words, a home occupied by a real family. We were brought to Isabel Cristina Rengifo who, after warmly greeting us, took us upstairs to her office to meet her mother Matilde, the founder of Mis Corazones.
It is this family – Matilde and her husband and their daughter – that shoulders most of the responsibility for managing Mis Corazones. The other part of this big family is the approximately 30 residents themselves, old people with physical and/or psychological impediments who, were it not for Mis Corazones, would most likely be out on the streets of Medellin. Matilde and her family are truly residents of the home too – they live on the top floor. This saves them from paying two rents and eliminates any need for a commute in Medellin’s intense traffic. But it also means that they never really get a break from the huge responsibility of providing round-the-clock care for the residents of Mis Corazones.
The home itself is quite large. While it’s narrow, it is also quite deep and is four stories high, nestled between two commercial buildings on a busy street in the heart of the old city. Another advantage is that some of the elderly residents are familiar with this neighborhood because they lived for at least part of their lives in this part of Medellin. Because it is squeezed between two buildings with which it shares windowless walls, the house tends to be a bit dark, but the electric lighting, together with the windows at the front and back, provide sufficient light for everyday needs. There is a small garden out back and many rooms for the residents, with an average of three or four beds in the larger rooms, fewer in the smaller ones. The home is clean and uncluttered, the decor and colors are cheerful and the feeling is altogether pleasant.
For many of her 33 years working as a nurse, Matilde carried and nurtured the dream of starting a residential care facility for some of the many old people who live on the streets of Medellin. As her date for retirement approached, and with few financial resources, she wondered how she would be able to make her dream come true. Matilde was also concerned that her family would find it difficult to support her in such a challenging endeavor, one which certainly does not fit easily into most people’s dreams for “retirement”. Right around the time she retired just over six years ago, Matilde heard about a home for elderly people with 23 residents which was being closed. There are laws and rules in Colombia which require that certain standards be met for homes like these, and because of lack of funding, this particular home was unable to meet these requirements and was being closed. This meant that 23 old people with serious health problems were going to be forced out onto the streets. Matilde took on the responsibility for this home, and it became Mis Corazones Alegres.
Matilde could not at that time do the work herself, certainly not most of it, so she paid for help from her own pocket. These 23 original elderly residents had been suffering from malnutrition and violence prior to staying in the home, and became the first clients of Mis Corazones and Matilde. She and her family moved into this home, and used money from her pension to pay the rent and keep it going. Her daughter Isabel Cristina used her own money in the early days to buy food for the home. There are currently five paid employees. They work six-day weeks, which is standard in Colombia, particularly in the healthcare professions. All five of the employees are professional and licensed by the government to provide the kind of care they provide. Matilde, who oversees the actual care, works seven days a week. They have some occasional help from volunteers, but there is not much of this and it is not steady. Isabel Cristina, who studied Gerontology at Medellin University, handles the administrative work. Proficient on computers, she handles the accounting, payroll, purchasing, paperwork, communications and public relations. She also puts some time in helping with care of the residents when it’s necessary.
While they get no support from the government, representatives of the government do visit regularly to make health and safety inspections. The government also charges for the license to operate, which must be renewed regularly. The Department of Health requires licensing and registration for private enterprises of this sort. Mis Corazones is registered as a private but non-profit enterprise. Most of the money to operate comes from the families of the residents. These families generally do not pay voluntarily, because most of them forced the residents out of their homes and onto the streets. Mis Corazones contacts the families and asks for at least partial support, and usually gets it. Often, this is because of a combination of shame and the implied threat of legal action. When I visited in May, there were 30 residents in care. The median cost to Mis Corazones of keeping a resident there for a month is 700,000 pesos (about $375 US), and the median amount received from resident’s families is 450,000 pesos (about $235 US). So the difference must be made up elsewhere.
There are rent, food, electricity, repairs and maintenance to be paid, and of course a major cost is labor, as well as the miscellaneous and unexpected costs that arise when running an enterprise of this magnitude. There were some regular contributors in the past, but currently there are none. Some Subud members have made private donations. Last year, Ilaina Ramirez, the SD Colombia chair, made a presentation on behalf of Mis Corazones, and SDIA paid for the trip. I asked Isabel Cristina what she would do with a bit of extra money if she were able to get some funding. She described four things:
- First, get ahead of their bills and improve their cash flow.
- Second, buy a couple of real hospital beds, the kind that are easily adjustable and make life more comfortable for both those residents who have little control over their bodies and the staff who care fo them.
- Third, they would like to take the residents out on occasional expeditions to parks and cultural events.
- And finally, they would like to bring some occasional entertainment into the home for the residents – musicians, magicians or storytellers, for example.
(I am happy to report that SD France has recently pledged money for the second item on the wish list, a pair of hospital beds.) In the future and on a larger scale, Mis Corazones hopes to purchase a better building, one that would enable them to increase both their capacity and their standard of care.