Living with Dignity

Four stories of elders finding value and purpose through Unbound elder sponsorship

September 09, 2022 | Be Inspired

They come to do something different.

For a couple of hours, three days a week, whether they are new or have been sponsored for some time, nearly 300 elders show up each week at the tiny classroom located in Unbound’s Antioquia program office in Colombia where staff member Marta Osorio awaits them.

They come to do something different than what they might do in their homes, and Marta’s number one priority is to listen to them.

“They like to be listened to, and they also like to show off their talents,” said Marta, who has made working with Unbound’s elders her life’s mission as a gerontology technician. “These [elders] are very lonely, and this is why they feel good when they come and there are others. … I think [Unbound] prioritizes [their needs] by instilling fellowship.”

Through Marta’s work with the elders in Antioquia, they are challenged to move their bodies during activities like stretching, low-impact aerobics, dancing, games and sports, and to strengthen their minds by mingling with others and learning new skills through crafting.

Recreational activities through Unbound are meant to show elders that they are capable and that it’s never too late to get ahead in life; no matter the age, it’s never too late to dream.

“They say ‘I can do it,’ but I realize they do it because they are motivated [here],” said Marta, who calls her elders her ‘grandparents.’ “They feel important and valuable because they are respected … they are valuable people like any young person.”

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Marta Osorio watches elders (far right) in her group exercise class in Unbound’s Antioquia program. On any given day during the week, activities range from stretching exercises and soccer, to dancing and crafting.

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Elders gather for an exercise involving a basketball during one of Marta’s many recreation and fellowship-focused classes in Unbound's Antioquia program. Marta oversees activities to accommodate close to 300 elders each week.

the valuable 'grandparents' of unbound


Marta’s “grandparents” have taught her through fellowship and recreation that old age is a stage of both teaching and learning — teaching what you’ve learned about living to younger generations while learning not to fear living in old age.

Just like Marta’s recreational classes with elders in Antioquia, each local Unbound office has its own specific approach to helping elders stay and feel connected. For example, Unbound staff in landlocked Medellin, Colombia, helped elders see the ocean for the first time with a trip to the coast, fulfilling a lifelong goal of many. In another example, staff in Honduras gave a self-esteem-building class to elders, teaching them how to use a mobile device to record a video of themselves saying things they liked about themselves.

So often around the world, older adults are forgotten, rejected or underappreciated. Unbound’s elder sponsorship breaks the cycle of loneliness, isolation and rejection, allowing elders to live their final years with dignity.

Unbound’s sponsored elders comprise 10% of all sponsored friends, and they are a community exemplifying stories of resilience, compassion, friendship, connection and belonging. In recognition of Grandparents Day this Sept. 11, here are just four of the stories of Unbound’s “grandparents” who are living their final years with dignity through support from elder sponsorship.

Thank God the sponsors are there because before, there was nothing. I know that Jesus is going to help them [her sponsors] because they are helping people in need.

— Maria, Sponsored elder in Guatemala

Teresita, Philippines — The beginning of firsts

Powdered milk, noodles, biscuits and canned goods are a few of the items Filipino elder Teresita immediately picks up during her grocery shopping trip each month after she receives her sponsorship benefits from Unbound.

The excitement and joy Teresita feels each month when she gets to go grocery shopping for her family are like nothing she has ever felt before.

“I feel happy and thankful doing grocery shopping every month because it never happened to me before … not even in my childhood,” said the 76-year-old former rice cake vendor.

Teresita and her husband are the parents of eight grown children, the youngest of whom lives with them and attends to their needs as they grow older. Declining health issues — asthma, high blood pressure and a heart condition — keep both elders from being able to work nowadays, and Teresita’s sponsorship benefits also help with the monthly costs of their medicines.

Teresita enjoys tending the small garden at her home, spending time with her family and dogs, and her elder group meetings with Unbound.

Teresita recalls her difficulty battling health issues before being a part of Unbound. She had relied on her children and donations from friends to pay her hospital bills more than three years ago following gallbladder surgery. Learning she would have a sponsor not long after that brought her immense joy.

Teresita is mindful to always share her joy with fellow elderly who are not a part of Unbound. She sees a future where her health continues to progress so that she can return to sharing her days with her fellow elderly, and she’s excited to gather with them again during her program’s annual Christmas party, a fellowship activity that was suspended because of the pandemic.

Photo 1: Sponsored elder Teresita gathers with other sponsored elders at the Unbound Pampanga program office in the Philippines each month to accept funds for groceries, benefits that staff provide in the form of a “gift check,” which is accepted at local grocery stores and is a safer method than cash. Teresita’s benefits help her put food on her table and provide medical care for herself and her ailing husband.

Photo 2: Teresita (sitting center) and her fellow elderly enjoy fellowship with one another while picking up their “gift checks” at the Unbound Pampanga program office in the Philippines each month.

Santos, Costa Rica — A neighbor becomes a friend

As with individuals and families in Unbound programs around the world, COVID-19 placed an extra burden on sponsored elder Santos. Unbound staff couldn’t check in to see how he was getting along, since in the early days of the pandemic they were unable to visit and had no way to directly communicate with him. Fortunately, help came in an old-fashioned way — from a caring neighbor.

Santos is 90 and lives in a rural area of Costa Rica, in a small home he shares with his brother and several dogs that are his constant companions. It’s an isolated area, and the two men have no electricity. The nearest water source is more than half a mile away. Life, especially during the pandemic, would be extremely burdensome if not for the care Santos receives from Meyling and her family.

Their relationship began in 2015 when Meyling, who is now 26, was still in school. She needed a community service project for a class and her mother suggested helping the two elderly men she’d recently heard about.

“Then, another classmate went with me to the old people’s house, and we agreed that it would be something good to clean and organize the house,” she said.

The friendship between Meyling and Santos lasted well beyond her need for class credit. Today she is married with two sons. Her husband, Oscar, is an electrician but the family struggles to get by. In 2018, they applied for Unbound sponsorship for their older boy, Kenneth, now 5. At the same time, Meyling helped Santos apply to become a sponsored elder.

“If I’m not wrong, Mr. Santos got the sponsorship before Kenneth and I told my mom, ‘It’s OK, at least Mr. Santos got the sponsorship.’ I wasn’t mad about it because he didn’t have any type of help such as a pension because he lacked [identification] documents.’”

Today, the family considers Santos their adopted grandfather. They visit him and his brother frequently, which is no small thing since it involves a half-hour walk. They bring prepared foods and, while they are there, clean the house.

Meyling also manages Santos’ Unbound funds since he doesn’t have a bank account because of his lack of identification documents. Still, he remembers his father telling him many times that he was born on Nov. 1, 1931, the Feast of All Saints. His name is likely a testament to that.

Now, in his later years, it seems that Santos has been blessed with a saint of his own.

Photo 1: Sponsored elder Santos takes a stroll around his home in rural Costa Rica, accompanied by one of his faithful canine companions. At 90, he lives with his brother in a remote area, in a home without electricity or running water.

Photo 2: Sitting outside his home in Costa Rica, 90-year-old sponsored elder Santos enjoys visiting with his friend Meyling. The mother of two young boys, one of whom is also sponsored, Meyling helps care for Santos and manages his Unbound finances.

Maria, Guatemala — Hope for the lonely

If determination were an image, you would see Maria depicted. Living alone in Guatemala, never married and with no children to call her own, Maria has known nothing but determination to survive.

At 7 years old she was able to pick one full basket of coffee beans alongside her parents in the coffee fields on the south coast, a feat for which she is still proud, though the job took her out of school for three months of every year.

She thinks at one time she had nine siblings — at least that’s what her mother told her as a child — but, at 76 years old, she is the only living sibling today. She has nieces and nephews, but they are often too busy to visit.

For work, she once washed other people’s clothes and embroidered by hand, but her body has too much pain to do that work now. She makes and sells tortillas with beans twice a week at the market near her home, and she grows her own crops of corn and beans.

Maria attends Mass every day and is a part of the church’s family pastoral group that goes into the community to pray over the sick.

She uses part of her sponsorship benefits for her daily sustenance and the other part to buy firewood and corn and to occasionally hire help to tend her cornfields each year. Maria asked God to send her a sponsor.

“I told God that I am all alone,” she said. “Thank God the sponsors are there because before, there was nothing. I know that Jesus is going to help them [her sponsors] because they are helping people in need.”

Maria doesn’t feel strongly about living by herself at this age; she believes it’s just the way of her life and, thus, she says she feels happy.

When night falls, she prays, but she is never truly alone. She takes comfort in knowing Jesus and Mary are with her all day and every night.

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At 76 years old, Maria lives alone in Guatemala and is responsible daily for providing her own source of income. She has been a sponsored elder with Unbound for less than two years and uses her sponsorship benefits for food, medicine and to improve her crops.

Photo 1: Maria grows and tends various crops and different herbs, including corn and beans, from land she rents. In years past, she also planted and harvested her own crop fields until the effects of aging became a problem.

Photo 2: Built by her father, the house Maria lives in is now owned by a nephew who allows her to live there rent-free. She gets up early to pray each day and says she learned to live and be happy in solitude because she feels God’s presence in her home.

Photo 3: Maria attends Mass every day at her church, carrying a candle with her to adore the Blessed Sacrament. “We have to give ourselves to God … because we will not be here forever. …” Maria said. “The Bible says, ‘Whoever has nothing will enter the kingdom. …’ That is why I go to Mass every day because if we do not follow God, there will be no hand of God in us, and we will not receive blessings.”

Leonora, Philippines — Community for those who still dream

When she was a little girl, Leonora dreamed of being a famous dancer people would recognize on TV. The daughter of a gardener in the Philippines, however, she only made it through the fourth grade before she started working to help her family.

She is the mother of seven children and six grandchildren, and three of her children live with her now after losing their homes to typhoons. At 72 years old, she sells balut, a fertilized duck egg, coffee and soda from a stand in the narrow alley outside her home.

Sponsorship through Unbound ensures that she can buy her heart medicines and enough food to feed her whole family multiple meals per day. But beyond that, she is thankful to her sponsorship for the community of elderly friends she has made through group activities.

One experience stands out in her mind. Before the pandemic, she traveled with Unbound staff and her elder group to visit 10 churches in two days. The group also visited a hot spring and tried different foods while on the trip. Leonora described getting to travel with Unbound as “like a fantasy dreaming while sleeping,” one that she wishes she could experience every day.

“I am so grateful and happy to see other places,” she said. “I also see it in the faces of my fellow sponsored elderly. It’s like we are doing an educational tour when we are still kids.”

Leonora’s one dream as she ages is for more elderly individuals in the world to receive similar support as she has received through Unbound, as she sees many elders who are abandoned by their families.

“You [her sponsor] are an angel that God has given to me to help me as I become older,” she said.

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To earn daily income, sponsored elder Leonora sells “balut,” a fertilized developing egg embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell, from her street cart in the Philippines. Leonora’s sponsorship benefits help her pay for medicine for her heart condition. The most memorable times in her life have been when she gets to travel with her Unbound elder group.


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