—House of the Old Ones

By James Tipton
(Ed. Note: Our thanks to Judy King, whose first ran a much longer version of this article.)

     Casa de Ancianos, the only non-profit retirement home serving the Chapala area, officially opened in 1972 with five residents, all Mexican. Now there are twenty-five residents, and they range from age 50 to age 101. Although every nationality is welcome, currently eighteen are Mexican and seven are American; ten are men and fifteen are women.
Marlene Dunham, President, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of Casa de Ancianos, says it simply, “Some of the people we take care of have no one and no money. Others, fortunately, are able to pay their own way, or their families are able to pay for them.”
     Currently the monthly charge—and this includes room, board, a nurse always on duty, a doctor who visits several times a week—is only $550 US, although because of rising costs they are thinking about raising that a little.
     Performers, like popular keyboard artist and vocalist Lynn Martin, regularly delight the residents. Each month a local dance teacher brings her students to do shows and to also dance with the residents. “They love parties,” Marlene says, “and most of them love to have a little drink now and then.”
     Marlene believes that “It is important for people who can afford little or even nothing at all to feel like they live in a nice place, where they receive lots of love.”
     Sometimes unusual things happen. “One woman who had visited here was later dying in a hospital in Guadalajara. She was very depressed. She did not want to die alone. She called and said she wanted to come here for her final days. We welcomed her and our doctor came to visit her the evening she was transferred here. He stayed with her until the next morning. That first full day here she improved dramatically. By the end of the week she not only attended one of our parties, she danced with that doctor. She still lives here.” 
     Sometimes, although thankfully not often, a resident will be too difficult to handle. One man with Alzheimer’s was desperate to “escape” and get “back to work.” “He would even climb over our high fence, and then we would have to go find him. Finally we had to transfer him to a more suitable facility. On the other hand, we have a woman here with Alzheimer’s and she is always happy. She walks around all day smiling at us.”
     What brought their charming President Marlene Dunham and Casa de Ancianos together?
     “Well, I never intended to even be here in Mexico. I was a happy hairdresser in Southern California. If someone had told me back then that I would end up in Mexico running Casa de Ancianos…a home for “the old ones”…I would have laughed in their face.
     “My husband, who had always loved Mexico, wanted to retire here. I was born and raised in Southern California to Mexican parents, but I didn’t really want to live in Mexico, because Mexico to me was those border towns like Tijuana and Mexicali. I was totally bi-lingual, but I didn’t really know what Mexico was really like. In 1988 we moved to Guadalajara and then in 1991 to Ajijic. And soon I began to love it here.”
     “In 1997 and 1998 I discovered Casa de Ancianos and volunteered to come here and cut their hair (I still do this for some of the residents). By 1999 when my husband passed away I had become more and more involved. I was feeling sad and lonely, and Casa de Ancianos gave me something meaningful to do. By 2000, when the Board asked me to take over, to be President, to actually run Casa de Ancianos, I thought ‘Wow, Marlene, what are you getting into!’ It was like jumping in the ocean and not knowing how to swim.”
     “At the time I became President, the Board and Casa de Ancianos faced significant financial difficulties. Although I had never been a fund-raiser, I began seeking donations in the expatriate community. I also started monthly parties here. We charged only $10 pesos admission. People would come, buy drinks, see what we were up to, what was needed. Little by little people discovered where we were and who we were, and they started to help out.”
     “As it turned out, working here was the best therapy for me. I forgot my own problems and began facing the problems confronting Casa de Ancianos.”
     “Although we have more projects than we have money, we do manage to provide a nice home for our twenty-five residents, and we try to keep their rooms looking neat and comfortable. We have a lot of nice trees and flowers, and we have nice sitting areas and a beautiful dining room and a very sweet and caring staff. We have two doctors, four nurses, two cooks, two housekeepers, a gardener, and a secretary.”
     Cuca, the oldest resident, is 101 years old. She still works out on the stationary bicycle, but she does like to have several cigarettes every day. “At these ages, we try to respect their wishes, so I let her smoke” Marlene says.
     How is it possible to offer so many services and to care for Cuca and the other twenty-four residents when less than half of them pay only $550 US each month? Seven residents pay nothing at all. Salaries alone for the large staff run $17,000 Pesos (about $1700 US) each week.
     Casa de Ancianos receives donations of both money and goods. “Americans and Canadians provide about 80% of the financial support; but in terms of goods, about 80% comes from the Mexican community. “Toritos, for example, provides us daily with fruits and vegetables and bread. Tony’s provides us with two kilos of ground beef each week, and inside the Mercado behind the Chapala plaza are several carnicerias that provide us with beef and pork and chicken each week. El Guayabo Sabroso, a restaurant on the Chapala malecón, gives us fish each week. And for desert, several times a week that new bakery in Ajijic Plaza, Marisa Pasteleria, gives us really fine cakes and pastries. Everyone is so generous, and since I live in Ajijic, I pick up a lot of the stuff each morning on my way to work.”
     In spite of all this generosity, though, Casa de Ancianos still has regular needs. Items that are always necessary and are inexpensive (you can drop them off at Casa de Ancianos in Chapala or even call Marlene to pick them up) include:
     ·      Toilet paper
     ·      Soap and shampoo
     ·      Mouthwash
     ·      Tissues (like Kleenex)
     ·      Diapers (in large or adult size)
     ·      Napkins
     ·      Skin creams
     ·      Cleaning supplies
     ·      Trays of party food that were not used
     Casa de Ancianos regularly receives bundles of clothing (please be sure that they are clean before you drop them off), and some they save for residents, some they pass on to those in need in Chapala, and some they sell at their bazaar held monthly at the American Legion building in Chapala (Morelos #114). The local Rotary Club, incidentally, recently purchased a new commercial clothes dryer for Casa de Ancianos. In addition to clothing, when people are moving out of the area, they often have things that they could donate to us, and if we cannot use them we can sell them through our monthly bazaar.
     Marlene says they also need more activities for the residents. The staff is simply too busy to devote much time to this, because most activities require uninterrupted supervision. Marlene is looking for volunteers who might be able to teach painting classes, or work in clay, or even organize and play table games with them.
Another current need is to find a dentist willing to come in once a month to check the residents and address difficulties some of them experience. 
     The biggest new project is a therapy clinic. The building is almost complete. This clinic will offer physical rehabilitation and exercise along with massage and homeopathic treatment. Furthermore, it will be open to the public with various services offered at varying fees. Doctor Rojas, a specialist in physical rehabilitation, will oversee the new clinic.
     The clinic was begun last January after the Governor of Jalisco offered Casa de Ancianos $150,000 pesos toward construction, which Casa de Ancianos then matched with $150,000 pesos out of their own funds. Now the building is completed and they are ready for the next step. They need exercise equipment, either new or in fine condition.
     They also intend to build more casitas in the future, but that has been delayed a bit because of some significant damage done by the “shifting earth” that is being repaired right now. “We have people waiting for these casitas we want to build.”
Marlene encourages interested people to just drop in. “We don’t have regular visiting hours,” she says. “You see the residents just the way they are. We’re not dressing them up for visitors.”
     Marlene has noticed herself changing since she has been President: “I was never very religious before. I believed in some things but I never felt ‘religious.’ Now I do feel religious. As part of that I believe that things good will happen, that people will show up who can help here, that God is behind us.”
     “I never had any children—no one I needed to really take care of—and now, finally, I do. These people are like my children, and I try to be like a caring mother to them. Late at night I want to be sure they’re all in their rooms and tucked in their beds. Some of them, teasing me, even call me ‘Mama.’”
     “I’m the one who’s really blessed here.”
     Donations to Casa de Ancianos are tax deductible in the United States to the full extent allowable by the IRS. To visit Casa de Ancianos, contact Marlene Dunham (376) 765-2497, or go to the home at Zaragoza #692 in Chapala.