Fellow Since 2006
This profile was prepared when Albeiro Vargas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Albeiro Vargas is improving societal treatment of the elderly and creating a model for strong intergenerational relations in Colombia through a program that brings children more closely and more regularly into the lives of older people.
The New Idea
Albeiro addresses the widespread lack of care for the elderly and the disconnection between generations in marginalized communities in Colombia through a model of intergenerational exchange. Albeiro’s Guardian Angels program recruits children to care for elderly residents in nursing homes. Children are trained in basic caretaking and graduate to higher levels of responsibility depending on their experience. Yet his initiative does much more than just provide care: it teaches children to be protagonists in the improvement of their communities—to be responsible, respectful, and to take initiative. And by creating regular contact between generations, Guardian Angels fosters understanding between children and elders. Participating youth hear stories of Columbia’s past, learn skills like craft-making and gardening, and take the elderly out on field trips. Close bonds are created that transcend age groups and provide a new sense of purpose and value in the young and old alike. Beyond the direct engagement of the inter-generational participants, Albeiro pushes for reforms in legislation and national policy that will shift the current societal attitude towards the elderly. For example, he has initiated lawsuits against children who have abandoned their elderly parents and waged a successful campaign for the enforcement of a nationwide tax supplying revenue to nursing homes.
Across Colombia, previously strong family units are disintegrating, leaving children and elders solitary at both ends of the age spectrum. Men might abandon their families because they are burdens, women might leave their families because of domestic abuse. Essential social values are disappearing, including respect for elders, family integrity, work ethic, and ambition are no longer being passed down from the elderly to young people. In low-income and marginalized communities, lack of family values and few opportunities for education and employment lead many young people to drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, and other illegal activities. Often young people lack clear life goals and do not think of themselves as having the potential to change their own situations or that of their communities; they grow up in the same path of poverty as their parents. In these same communities, one also finds elderly people in the streets, hungry, ill and emotionally despairing. The elderly are often unwelcome in families who are already struggling to maintain their livelihoods, and are frequently abandoned by both their families and the Colombian government. If they do not have children to care for them, their situation is worse, for they live at the mercy of distant relatives. In Bucamaranga, the region where Albeiro works, 64 percent of homeless people are elderly. Fifty percent of Bucaramanga’s elderly people are poor, and 16,000 are abandoned, without access to public services. Both the young and old generations in Columbia are especially vulnerable and have important needs that are not being met. Currently there are no mechanisms or models in place to bridge these two groups; generally alienated from one another and therefore unable to exchange wisdom and values with care and energy. Social leaders are not committed to making changes at the family level. With continual upheaval and civil unrest, the Colombian state has not adequately addressed the problems of unprotected elderly people, children and teenagers of marginalized communities. Nor have the communities taken the initiative to change or participate in their development.
Albeiro’s core strategy consists of a structured, multi-year program for children in a nursing home which cares for many of the most destitute and abandoned elderly people in his region of Bucaramanga. He complements this model with other techniques intended to layout a blueprint for societal value change around the integration of generations. The first part of Albeiro’s model has been evolving organically through practical applications of trial and error since he was in his teens. What started as the simple activity of providing food, care, and companionship for abandoned elderly people has evolved into a complex program, with continual program enhancements. At his current center for the elderly, located on a farm in the countryside, Albeiro employs eight staff members, including a psychologist, nurse, and music instructor, and 20 unpaid university student interns. Daily activities involve both children and elderly people interacting in language classes, dance, theater and chorus groups, handicraft workshops, games, and training in first aid, nutrition, and care for the elderly. The elderly people themselves are essential to some of the classes, such as teaching children farming skills in a community garden. Albeiro has invented other means of valuing the elderly and ensuring that they recognize that they are productive members of the home, an aspect integral to their emotional well-being. The nursing home has an in-house currency system which pays residents for certain tasks and handmade crafts, money residents use to purchase items at a small store on the premises. Both the elderly and the children are engaged in small production activities such as making recycled paper, greeting cards, and candles, that bring in revenue for the center.Despite his passion for caring for the elderly, Albeiro’s target is ultimately the children, Columbia’s future social leaders. His youth program involves increasing ownership over children’s roles and a series of stages leading up to the ultimate position of “guardian angel.” Albeiro believes that such a system allows children to project themselves into the future, using the older and more advanced children as role models, which encourages ambition and a strong work ethic. Children first enter Stage 1, the “seed” stage, in which they are coached on the center and taught about values, solidarity, what it means to be old, and the activities of the older guardian angels. Many children leave during this process, narrowing the group to those inclined towards the center’s work. After 5 or 6 months these children are finally put in contact with the center’s elderly people. In Stage 2, the “co-existence” stage, children participate in the center’s activities, learning to become aware of themselves and their potential to bring happiness to elderly people’s lives. These children take up more and more tasks, for example, managing the in-house currency system, creating improvements to activities, or speaking publicly in their schools about the program. At Stages 3 and 4, children are already classified as graduated guardian angels, and have been at the center between 5 and 7 years—with increasing responsibilities; for example, taking elderly people on field trips to the movies and other activities.Albeiro has about 80 children on the waiting list to participate in his Guardian Angel program. These children are mostly from low-income communities, and they have heard about Albeiro’s program largely from current program participants. Albeiro has found the most effective method of spreading his message and recruiting new children is to send his guardian angels to speak in their communities and schools, sharing their experience with their peers. He understands that children can speak to other children much more effectively than adults about the role they can play in taking care of their families, including the elderly, and being responsible members of their communities. The number of children waiting to participate proves that Albeiro’s insight is effective in gaining new recruits and ensuring the continuity of the program. Public speaking is one of the major responsibilities guardian angels take on, as they advance through the programmatic stages. Of the many children who want to participate in his program, Albeiro has an all-important requirement which shortens the list: their families must be supportive and willing to participate in center activities. Albeiro’s vision is ultimately to re-enforce strong family bonds, so he targets families who are willing to make changes in their lives. Albeiro currently plans to open a partner nursing home for elderly people who can afford to pay for their room and board. He has purchased the piece of land where the second home will be located. His idea is to use this new, paying nursing home as a source of revenue to sustain his current nursing home, and at the same time provide an opportunity for graduated guardian angels to found and run their own centers. Albeiro seeks to spread his Guardian Angel pilot program to existing nursing homes in his state and to other cities across Colombia. As official Regional Coordinator of nursing homes in his local and state governments, Albeiro has succeeded in influencing several nursing homes to open their doors to children, which he sees as an important first step. A gerontologist by profession, Albeiro has taken a leadership role with the Elderly Shelters State Association where he is promoting his program and supporting its replication. Internationally, Albeiro is spreading his idea through informal networking with friends. Underlying all of Albeiro’s long-term spread strategies is the idea that the Guardian Angels program is currently training the next tier of leaders on care for the elderly— multipliers of his idea. More directly, the university students who participate in Albeiro’s program as interns have in general been deeply affected by the experience, and two former interns have already opened nursing homes of their own. The Guardian Angel Foundation and nursing home was formally established in 1992 and includes a seven-member board of directors and a 40 member general assembly of advisors, as well as a pro bono accountant and lawyer. In addition to the center and Guardian Angel program, the Foundation supports Albeiro’s other efforts to create momentum and change around societal responsibility to care for the elderly. One such initiative is a series of lawsuits against children who have abandoned their elderly parents. Another is a successful campaign to enforce a national tax, a licensing fee for new businesses that goes to support nursing homes, which had previously been widely ignored. Albeiro is also working to influence local policy on the elderly; his position as a public representative has encouraged the Bucaramanga city mayor, who plans to spread this awareness-raising by pushing the inclusion of the aging process subjects in the current school curricula through the Elderly Shelters State Association.
Albeiro’s concern and care for the elderly is a lifelong passion that began in early childhood with a deep friendship with his grandfather. When Albeiro was 7 years old, his grandfather died, and he began to visit other grandparents in the neighborhood. The youngest son of a rural family that had been forced to flee to the city, Albeiro lived in the poorest imaginable conditions in a slum. He found that many of the elderly people he visited were not only lonely and depressed, but also often hungry and physically abandoned. Albeiro developed a morning routine, visiting several of these grandparents with a thermos of coffee from his mother, who supported Albeiro in this kindness despite her barely being able to feed their large family. At the age of 9, Albeiro started enlisting other children, eventually creating a small organization, with elected officials and account-keeping, which systematized the children’s visits to various elderly people on a rotating basis and organized group activities and lunches for the most destitute. It was around that age that Albeiro was discovered by the Colombian press and then by a French journalist, whose movie, Colombian Angel, sparked French financial contributions for Albeiro’s work which he still receives.At age 11, Albeiro opened the home for the elderly that is the origin of his current organization. He resourcefully moved several of the most at-risk elderly people into an abandoned house, and then convinced the owner to allow them to stay for 4 years. Since that time, Albeiro has continued to come up with solutions to significant obstacles, expanding his vision to include children not only as aids to the elderly but also as targets of his work. He has used his publicity to convince people to give him the help he needed along the way, including the donation of the farm where his nursing home is housed today. In his late twenties, Albeiro is currently finishing his university degree in gerontology.