Our world is getting older and, on the face of it, less caring. Recent research finds that the average number of children per woman halved from 4.7 in 1950 to 2.4 in 2017, while global average life expectancy increased by 5.5 years between 2000 and 2016. Better medication may be keeping us alive for longer, but society is leaving too many older people behind: More than a million older people in England reportedly go for over a month without speaking to a neighbour, family member or friend.
In Spain, there are an estimated 330,000 people living in 5,000 older people’s residences. Regular visits to see his grandfather in one of these centres highlighted a problem to Alberto Cabanes: Too many older people were experiencing solitary lives, either without anybody to come and visit or family members that visited infrequently.
Alberto explains how on one trip, he met his father’s friend, Bernardo, a solitary 84-year-old who confessed that his one major dream was to have a grandchild who visits. This encouraged Alberto to ‘adopt’ Bernardo as his grandfather—eventually encouraging others to take similar steps.
In 2014, these efforts formalised with the creation of a charity, ‘Adopta Un Abuelo,’ or ‘Adopt a Grandpa.’ The idea is that young volunteers choose a day of the week to go into an older person’s residence—as a pair to make it more fun—then simply spend time with their new grandparent, playing games and learning from their wisdom. To date, 951 young people have signed up, giving 12,000 hours of company, in 34 cities across Spain and Portugal, to 490 ‘adopted’ older people.
In a video on the website, the charity says its main goal is to combat loneliness and make older people feel listened to, visited and loved, while offering a chance for younger people to learn respect and patience.
The Spanish newspaper El País, in a profile on the charity, relays the story of Joaquina, a 90-year-old whose life turned on its head when health problems forced her into a wheelchair and an older person’s residence. But the issues were alleviated when Gabriela and Carlota, two 27-year-old volunteers for the charity, turned up to give her company and spend time with her.
Laura Hernández, psychologist at the Orpea residence, one of the residences connected to the charity, adds to the paper that the charity helps improve quality of life for many older people—particularly their mood, mobility and cognitive skills. “There are people who have suffered from depression and, with Adopt a Grandpa, have improved a lot and are much more positive.
“But what’s more, the charity widens the network of support. People who normally participate don’t have many family members or don’t receive many visits; taking part in the programme creates links, shares experiences and gives people a common topic to talk about. It’s usual for people who feel quite alone to become more social once they join the group.”
Writing on the Adopta Un Abuelo website, Alberto says that his interest in the topic was not just a coincidence: He lived with his grandparents from a young age. He writes that his grandparents had never let him down; they were always available with a smile or a gesture of love—teaching him “humility, simplicity, and generosity.” “These are some of the values that many will identify with when they read the word ‘grandparents,’” he adds.
“Having the chance to grow up with them has been the trigger so that every time I see and older person I feel a level of respect and admiration as huge as I feel for my own grandparents,” he writes.
“The objective of creating Adopta Un Abuelo was not just to tackle the hours of loneliness felt by older people, but also to help grandparents across the world to stick out. We have to remember that it’s thanks to them that we today live in a developed country in which we can access water directly from the tap, turn on the lights, or travel comfortably in a train.”