María Gabriela Chalbaud arrives at Maritza's house in Caracas early in the morning, as she does without fail two or three times a week. She attends to the elderly woman as if she were her own mother: she makes sure that she is taking her Alzheimer medication, she makes sure she is eating enough, she makes her laugh, she plays games with her, she takes her for a walk in the park, or out to a cafe to drink a juice. Maritza enjoys the company and considers Chalbaud her friend. She is the only person she allows to enter her bedroom, that very intimate space where she keeps things from her past, much of which her fragile memory has begun to forget.
A few months ago, the pair were complete strangers.
It all started when Chalbaud received a call from a Venezuelan woman who had migrated from her home country, one of about 5 million people who have fled from a severe humanitarian crisis. The woman was in Greece, far from her aunt Maritza, who had been a caring, loving mother to her. As Alzheimer’s disease diluted her 68-year-old aunt’s memories, the woman longed to be with Maritza to take care of her, but 9,161 kilometers separated them. Then someone had mentioned Chalbaud’s name and told her she might be able to help.
After a long professional career as an educational psychologist and university professor, Chalbaud decided her salary was not enough to cover her most basic expenses. While pregnant with her second son she chose to reinvent herself. She invited her colleague Yanet Calderona to join her in creating Mi Hijo Suplente, or My Substitute Son, a social enterprise that provides care, company, and love to elderly people who no longer have anyone to take care of them.
An estimated 960,000 senior adults have been left alone in Venezuela as a result of mass migration, according to Convite, a Venezuelan organization that advocates for the rights of the elderly. Alone, these elders struggle in a country where many things are difficult and uncertain, such as having money, buying food, using public transport, visiting the doctor, going to the pharmacy, having running water, having electricity.
“I realized a program was needed to facilitate the necessities of life for elders living alone. Because I lived it myself. I am an only child and my mother is 78, has hypertension and is diabetic. I've had to stumble around getting her medicines. She started to ask me to get medication for her friends as well. Many were alone, without families, and they found it very difficult to survive,” Chalbaud said.
In 2018, Chalbaud and Calderona began to shape the project. They applied for a scholarship from the Institute for Higher Administration Studies. They received a grant to study there, and with the advice of experts, they developed the business model for the venture.
“We are not a foundation but an enterprise with social impact. It is a service that we offer with much affection, with warmth. People can purchase multiple packages ranging from 5 to 27 hours a week. During that time we take care of whatever needs to be done: buy the groceries, walk with the elders, take them to the doctor, or simply visit them to provide companionship. Before starting to attend to someone, we interview a family member to guide us on the approach we will take. In Maritza's case, for example, I had to learn a lot about Alzheimer’s. I even consulted a nutritionist who put her on a specialized diet,” explains Chalbaud.
Mi Hijo Suplente hopes to create a scholarship system for the elderly in need whose family members cannot afford a package of hours. But the reality of their situation means that is still a dream. They have few resources and a small team of only four professionals. They use their own vehicles to get to services. Chalbaud and Calderona long to start training more people how to care for the elderly so they can provide service to more seniors.
Most of those who hire the service are Venezuelans abroad who want their relatives still in the country not to feel neglected and vulnerable, like Martiza's niece, who called from Greece.
Or like another Venezuelan who one day contacted Calderona from Argentina. He was worried about his 81-year-old mother, who was emaciated, underweight and convulsing. There was no one to take care of her because the whole family had left the country. He wanted to take her to Argentina, but in the state she was in it was impossible; first her condition needed to be stabilized. He asked Calderona to take care of her, to take her to the doctor, to buy her clothes and food; and to keep her company. After a couple of weeks, the woman had gained 7 kilos and was smiling. Soon after, she got on a plane to meet her son. From Buenos Aires she still writes to send blessings to Calderona, her substitute daughter.