New Life in the Golden Years
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Maryknoll sister’s ministry provides compassionate accompaniment to elderly residents in Panama

The New Life Foundation in Panama is living up to its name even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As this virus swept around the world, Maryknoll Sister Geraldine Brake and her team adapted to ensure their elderly residents continue having quality of life.

“We are a small capsule of what is happening in hospitals and other residences for the elderly,” Sister Brake says. “All these places are considered a high priority.”

This non-profit residence, officially the Fundación Nueva Vida in Spanish, has cared for Panama’s elderly for the last 30 years, and the current health crisis is no exception.

“They are working hard and there is an incredible unity,” says longtime Nueva Vida resident Gloria Paz Rodriguez, 79. “We feel completely safe here … Thanks to God and the Virgin, we have a fundación where we are well taken care of.”

After World Mission Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand Church, pastor Father Jason Torba and Cardinal Blase Cupich greet the congregation, including all those who do mission in Chicago. (Julie Jaidinger, Chicago Catholic/U.S.)
Sister Brake and caregiver Yazmin Salazar distribute Communion in April 2020. (Courtesy of Geraldine Brake/Panama)

As in many eldercare facilities in Panama now, hygiene measures have doubled and visitors have been forbidden. “They miss their families but realize (seeing them) is not possible right now. It’s a sacrifice. Everyone has a sacrifice to offer,” Sister Brake says of the residents, some of whom are used to seeing their relatives at least once a week.

As of mid-May, Panama, a country of 4 million people, reported nearly 8,500 confirmed cases of the virus. The ministry of health reported 244 deaths nationwide.

Nueva Vida residents, Sister Brake says, range in age from 64 to 101 years old, and many have pre-existing health conditions that could make them vulnerable, so sanitary conditions are crucial.

After a national curfew was ordered in Panama—initially from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m.—Sister Brake’s team adjusted their schedule, with caregivers agreeing to work 16-hour shifts with only a day off in between so they could continue providing residents with 24/7 care. “The staff’s willingness to make adjustments personally and in their families is a real blessing,” she says, adding that their selflessness inspires her.

Solidarity among staff, families and residents is not surprising. It is a continuation of the foundation’s commitment to give its elderly residents a healthy, pleasant and dignified environment in which to spend their later years, she says.

Sister Brake founded this ministry after working with elderly Panamanians who were displaced when the U.S. Army invaded the country and deposed Panama’s ruler Manuel Antonio Noriega in December 1989. The missioner explains that after bombings forced thousands to take refuge at a nearby school, the Maryknoll Sisters spent months helping at the makeshift shelter. With the help of Panamanian Archbishop Marcos Gregorio McGrath and local organizations, Sister Brake was able to establish, in an old hospital, a place where the ill and elderly could feel safe and valued.

Nueva Vida, now located in the former Howard Air Base in Panama Pacifico, has continued serving the needs of the people. “The symbol of the fundación is a butterfly, whose evolution toward the fullness of life reflects our mission,” says Sister “Gerri,” as she is known.

One of the faces of Chicago in mission is Marta Robak, coordinator of volunteers from St. Ferdinand parish who serve with the Missionaries of the Poor, a religious community of brothers who minister to the most vulnerable people. Robak finds joy surrounded by residents of MOP-run Good Shepherd Orphanage Center for girls and elderly women in Uganda. (Courtesy of Marta Robak/Uganda)
Before the COVID-19 pandemic: Sister Geraldine Brake greets Nueva Vida resident María Alcalá in February 2019. (Maria-Pia Negro Chin/Panama)

Beatriz Grando, the residence administrator, says the 78 residents come from all walks of life, including ministers, beauty queens and public accountants. “I like to listen to the stories of their lives, and it gives me peace to help them have quality of life.”

“The elderly can be forgotten in society,” Grando continues. “All of the organizations think about the well-being of children, but sometimes the elderly don’t have support and are abandoned.”

The need for housing and care for the elderly in Panama reflects the global phenomenon of people living longer, Sister Brake says. According to the United Nations’ World Population Prospects 2019, by 2050, one in six people in the world will be over the age of 65, up from one in 11 in 2019. “To grow old is not an easy process,” Sister Brake says. “It requires a lot of bravery and humility to accept the limitations of the body and even to grow dependent on others.”

She echoes the sentiments of Pope Francis when he told young people at World Youth Day to treat the elderly as sources of wisdom. “Those who are older need to feel the love and tenderness of friends and loved ones; it keeps them alive, showing them they are important,” she says.

Her 34-person team shows that love to residents every day, whether by preparing meals, doing laundry, or dressing and feeding them.

“They are knowledgeable and treat you with such care and love that you feel at home,” says resident Elba Angélica Ramos González, 90.

Fellow resident Cecilia Mendez de Arauz, 97, also feels the foundation is her home and refers to Sister Gerri Brake as “like a mother to us. When there is something we need, she anticipates it and gives it to us.”

Family comes naturally for the tall missioner with the sweet voice and ready smile. Sister Brake, 73, grew up in Wilmington, Del., in a family of 12 children. Her family’s faith and her mother’s invitation to see the goodness in people made a difference in their lives, she says. “I’m grateful for my family, who instilled in me a spirit of faith and love of God,” says the missioner, who entered the Maryknoll Sisters in 1966.

Sent to Nicaragua in 1972, Sister Brake helped people to rebuild their lives after a devastating earthquake that year. During her nine years in that Central American country, she accompanied the people during much of the Nicaraguan Revolution. “I learned a lot from my time in Nicaragua,” she says, explaining that people rallied together to help each other build a sense of community.

In Father Edmond Aristil’s home village of Los Palis, Chicagoan Jenna Ladner shows the face of mission in Chicago as she joins Evans Louise and other Haitians hauling cinderblocks to build community latrines. (Jason Stamps/Haiti)
Volunteers from the community would often visit the residents for activities like bingo before COVID-19 became a global pandemic. (Courtesy of Geraldine Brake/Panama)

A similar spirit of solidarity is intensifying in Panama during this time of pandemic, she says. Many families have donated medicines, vegetables, cleaning supplies, masks and hospital gowns to help keep the Nueva Vida residents healthy.

Although forbidden to visit, relatives of the residents and volunteers have come to help disinfect the buildings. “They are not seeing their relatives, but are willing to help us with the extra cleaning of chairs or tables when the residents are in their rooms,” Sister Brake says.

“This crisis made us realize how fragile we are and how we need the solidarity of others,” Grando adds.

In the face of COVID-19, Sister Brake and her team have made sure the residents’ routines remain consistent to keep their bodies, minds and souls healthy. Residents continue with their morning prayer, adapted liturgical celebrations, physical therapy and activities such as bingo, singing and movies while observing social distancing.

“The time to pray the rosary is even more important now,” says Sister Brake, adding that their faith has strengthened. “Residents pray in solidarity for world health.”


Featured Image: Residents of Fundación Nueva Vida in Panama in a 2019 photo. From left: Elba Angélica Ramos González, Gloria Paz Rodriguez and Cecilia Mendez de Arauz. (Maria-Pia Negro Chin/Panama)



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About the author

Maria-Pia Negro Chin

Maria-Pia was born and raised in Lima, Peru. She earned a master’s degree in multimedia journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s degree in communications/writing from Loyola University Maryland. As bilingual associate editor, she writes, edits and translates articles for Misioneros and Maryknoll Magazine for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. Her work has received awards from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada. She lives in New York with her husband and son.