Just over two weeks ago I was able to visit the Nursing Home of St Charles Borromeo in Prague, in the suburb of Repy: the home, curiously enough, was a place I had heard a lot about, mostly from Czech friends' grandparents, some of whom had either been there, or expressed the desire to visit.
The nursing home has an interesting history - in the beginning it was an orphanage which the nuns managed for some 400 children. But, when an epidemic of trachoma broke out in 1862, many of these were sent elsewhere for treatment and did not return, leaving behind an empty building. The nuns were assigned the role of rehabilitating women offenders, when the government rented the building, and turned it into a prison.
Incredibly, part of the nursing home is still a minimum-security jail for women, even today. Some prisoners qualify and undergo special training in a course for taking care of the elderly, and receive a professional diploma upon completion. In this way the Borromeo nursing Home is a European original: a place where prisoners, nuns, priests, doctors, health specialists, and of course the aged, all end up relying upon each other in intricate ways, unusual as it may seem. The general director of the Czech Republic's Prison Service, Kamila Meclova, says the program has deep significance for both the female prisoners' lives and the elderly they care for:
"When one takes into consideration what taking care of the elderly and the sick means, I think it has a powerful influence on the prisoners' emotional lives. The course broadens their sensitivity and emotional life, and teaches them not to be afraid of pain, suffering, and things which seem unpleasant at first. They learn how to deal with problems such as hygiene among patients who are immobile, or helping them eat. Since none of us really knows what we are going to encounter in old age, I take the women prisoners' desire to learn to help these people very seriously. In return, the elderly accept their help, and appreciate them for it."
The head nun at the nursing home sister Konsolata agrees, always stressing the happiness of the patients.
"I see the success of this program in the satisfaction of our clients. The women from the jail are also generally happy, grateful for the work they are doing, and the beauty of the home and its surroundings. I would say that 90 percent of the patients probably have no idea that some of the women taking care of them are actually convicts, since they wear the same clothes or uniforms as the rest of us. The regular staff also take the prisoners as colleagues. I think that in particular these women have a chance to integrate once they return to normal life, and don't suffer the same frustration of normal jails and reintegration."
The unique arrangement of this program is intriguing and certainly valuable. The home also offers a full range of services which include physiotherapy, workshops, and cultural events. But what about the nursing home itself, and its inhabitants? I had a chance to visit on October 31st, when the home opened its doors to the public during an "Open House". I also attended the concert by the Radost children's choir, in honor of the women prisoner reintegration program.
In many ways the nursing home is an impressive area, with a beautiful courtyard, a church, a day-care center where patients can listen to readings, or listen to music. Furthermore, there is a workshop that displays hundreds of projects that old people have worked on, including everything from paintings to embroidery. The home's several floors are divided between the nuns, the male and female patients, and the penitentiary. On the tour we were shown the elderly clients' rooms, where they live in twos or threes. Both the rooms and the hallways were impeccably clean, everything shined with a newness that reflected the complex's recent reconstruction. The home offers ninety beds for patients for a period of up to three months, and the emphasis is to treat the elderly and get them back in shape after an accident or illness, so that they can return to their normal lives as soon as possible. Obviously, not all cases are clear cut, and there are cases within the home which are much more serious. Luckily the patients I spoke with were already in good health, happy and cared for, just about getting ready to return to their usual lives.
"I've been here 19 days and my stay is ending now, but everything was really nice. I was able to really relax, to attend a lecture, to get some exercise. They teach you simple exercises for old people, nothing strenuous, no hopping around like young people."
"This is my third time here, and it's nice. I exercise, do crafts work, take part in singing with the nuns, and I even have friends here from last year. But I am looking forward to the Spring, and going home to my garden."
"I am here for three months, I am after an accident in my leg and I had very much pain, and so and so I had here rehabilitation and I like it very much. It is much better, and I can borrow many books here, and talk with people, with my neighbor, she is very nice and I like her very much. And the nurses are very, very good."
During my visit it became clear that the role of the Nursing Home of St Charles Borromeo has a wider role than just to serve the elderly clients: because the home relies on charities and private donations for its budget, it regularly organizes concerts and other events to attract outside interest, which retains connections between society outside and the elderly in the home. This was reinforced by sister Konsolata's view:
"It is important, and I am glad that our home can act as a kind of a cultural center for Repy, there aren't many possibilities here, in our church we often have benefit concerts, readings, organ music, children singing, artists display their work here, we have two rooms which are used as an art gallery, and our old people are not isolated from life outside, people come here. It is truly a cultural center."
For one thing, a home which has the dedication of an institution like the Nursing Home of St Charles Borromeo seems to be as much of a cure as is possible against many of the ravages of age, and the work they do deserves to be acknowledged: the work of the nuns, the doctors, and the prisoners. During the day that I visited there was a very sympathetic mood in the air, with patients milling about in the halls, some laughing, some getting ready to watch TV. At one point I did have a chance to observe some patients who seemed less well off, including a man who didn't seem aware of his surroundings, and one lady who stared dumbly into space, looking very sad as and old indeed as she watched the pigeons in the courtyard. As I pondered her presence it made me wonder where the wealth of knowledge and feeling and memories that make each of us individuals eventually disappears. And I have a lurking suspicion that if I asked the Borromeo nuns, they would have an answer for that too...
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