Maryknoll Lay Missioners project makes a profound difference in the lives of increasingly isolated older people in the Andes
For many years now, Maryknoll lay missioners Filo Siles and Joe Loney have dedicated themselves to improving the quality of life for those living with disabilities in rural Bolivia. At two remote locations — Tacopaya in the Andean altiplano and Entre Rios in a poor immigrant community in the country’s tropical south — they are providing crucial services for young people and adults with many different disabilities.
Working in the Andean town of Tacopaya and the many indigenous communities around it, they have noticed the great toll — physical, mental and emotional — that the departure of the majority of young people from those communities is having on older adults. So many of their children and grandchildren have moved to the big cities of Cochabamba and La Paz or to opportunities abroad, leaving the older people feeling abandoned and lonely. Their increasing isolation often cuts them off from social connections as well as medical and other services that would be available to them. This isolation is all the more pronounced for those who are also living with various disabilities — and of course the pandemic exacerbated it even more.
In response, Filo and Joe’s Foundation for Social Justice has initiated a new project to serve the area’s older population — including those living with disabilities. They secured funding, and last summer hundreds of older indigenous women and men came together in three different large gatherings.
A physical therapy session is offered for indigenous elders in the Andes, at a gathering which is part of a project founded by Maryknoll Lay Missioners Joe Loney and Filo Siles. (Courtesy of Filo Siles and Joe Loney/Bolivia)
Held in the communities’ coliseo gyms, the gatherings combined a health fair, vaccination campaign, medical check-ups, nutritional education, assistance with securing social services and the provision of walking canes, medications etc. with a fiesta that included traditional Andean music and dancing.
The foundation spread the word by radio and organized transportation from the many surrounding small communities to the gatherings. “We never thought so many people would come,” said Filo. “Afterwards, several people came up to me to hug me and tell me how much it had meant to them. ‘No one ever cares about us,’ they said. ‘I feel I’m just a nuisance because I can’t work anymore.’ In Quechua, they told me, ‘Dios pagarapunsunk’a’ — God will repay you.”
After the initial outreach, the foundation has followed up with many additional services to the older population — from eye exams and eye glasses to vegetable nurseries and from awareness-raising in the communities to accompaniment of those who have been especially isolated.
During this Lent, Filo said, because of the new project she is connecting more deeply with the loneliness and abandonment Jesus suffered. Although he was accompanied by his disciples, the Gospels tell us again and again that they just “didn’t get it”; Jesus must have often felt disappointed, frustrated and lonely. During his Passion, the apostles fell asleep, ran away and denied him.
Maryknoll Lay Missioner Filo Siles dances with an elderly indigenous woman at a community event sponsored by the project she co-founded in Bolivia with her spouse, Joe Loney. (Courtesy of Filo Siles and Joe Loney/Bolivia)
“Finally, when Jesus died on the cross,” she added, “he felt the ultimate abandonment, crying out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mt 27:46). From my conversations with them, I know that many of the older people also feel profoundly abandoned — some even to the point that they too feel forsaken by God. That is why for Joe and me the direct accompaniment in this project has been so meaningful — holding hands with them, hugging them, lending a listening ear, lifting them up with an encouraging word and also talking with them about God’s love for them.”
In his message for Lent this year, Pope Francis reminds us that “Lent is a favorable time to seek out — and not to avoid — those in need; to reach out — and not to ignore — those who need a sympathetic ear and a good word; to visit — and not to abandon — those who are lonely.”
Maryknoll lay missioners, together with their local communities around the world, are engaged in these activities not only in Lent, but all year round. Like Filo and Joe, we accompany our global sisters and brothers — especially those, like the old folks in Tacopaya, who are in need and feel abandoned.
Featured image: Elderly participants dance in a circle during an event sponsored by a new Maryknoll Lay Missioners project in Tacopaya, Bolivia, founded by missioners Filo Siles and Joe Loney. (Courtesy of Filo Siles and Joe Loney)