AllcardMATURING GENTLY UNDER THE ANDORRAN SUN

My husband, Edward, is 102 and we’ve lived in Andorra (Pyrenees) for over 30 years, coming to know quite a bit about what aging here is like. For instance, Edward took up skiing in these mountains aged 75 – and finally gave it up when 92. So what’s the secret?

The Lancet, arguably the most influential medical journal in the world, recently published the results of 25 years of in-depth research covering the healthcare and outcome of 32 common diseases in 195 countries. And Andorra’s system came out top. Yup, that’s right, Number 1 in the world.

I thought today I’d tell you about just one facet of that triumphant ‘healthcare’: the attention given to those over 65. A while back, we were also said to have the world’s longest life expectancy. Asked by the BBC to explain this longevity, one of our doctors replied that he put it down to: genes, altitude, lack of stress due to lack of crime – and the fact that you could get a very nice glass of red wine in the hospital cafeteria. To that I would add exercise and a healthy Mediterranean-style diet. One very seldom sees an overweight Andorran. Nor, for that matter, does one see a drunk one.

One rail-thin old boy regularly used to take himself up a steep path leading from our driveway into the mountains, accompanied only by a wooden walking stick. Was he, we wondered, really as old as he looked or was he just weather-beaten? Edward was in his late 80s at the time and was bashing away at a rock in an attempt to widen the drive when the old boy came back down the track and, seeing Edward, complained indignantly, ¨You young fellows should do something about that path. It’s in a dreadful state!’ (Or Catalan words to that effect.)

Edward retorted, ‘So how old are you then?’

‘Ninety-three.’

Edward said no more.

Just yesterday I was admiring a wrinkled, white-haired couple working on their lovingly tended vegetable patch. The old lady was bent near double hacking away at the soil with a hoe, preparing it for a future abundance of vegetables laid out both sides of the road in splendidly neat rows. Later she will plant an array of herbaceous flowers to brighten up the verges.

But it is not only people with property who can cultivate the land in Andorra. The Fundació Julià Reig collaborates with various comuns, or local authorities, to provide allotments, 45m2, for retired folk living in flats so they, too, can benefit from home grown veg and flowers and healthy exercise in the fresh air. At present La Massana administers 20 allotments which anyone over 65 can apply to cultivate for one year. Annual visits are organised between allotment associations to admire each other’s gardens.

Andorra’s elderly (or Gent Gran), run four very active associations. One organises an annual international accordion festival, another a major card-playing tournament. Andorra’s old people are far from passive consumers.

Being old in Andorra is accepted, almost expected. Old people are respected by the community at large. I often take Edward down into La Massana where, if he’s in his wheelchair, my Andorran friends make a point of bending down to give him a kiss on both cheeks – Andorra being a ‘two-kiss’ culture, right cheek first. (I have to say Edward was slightly overwhelmed the other day when a dear old priest gave him the same greeting!)

Andorra has seven local authorities or comuns and each comú is in charge of caring for and stimulating their retired and elderly residents in daily living, while a national health insurance system, an excellent small hospital and a number of health centres takes care of sickness. In a new move, the government will shortly take over organising daily home visits to the country’s housebound, offering help with dressing, showering, cooking, shopping, visits to the doctor and going for gentle walks. To cope with the increased need for personnel, the Andorran University has introduced a postgraduate course in Care of the Elderly and, so far, there are 17 successful graduates. This allows longer hours to be spent caring for individuals in their homes, which is the long term objective of the government — to care for as many people as possible at home.

For younger retirees, the comuns lay on an impressive array of activities. Throughout the country there are local authorityrun llars (literally hearths) or Cases Pairals (ancestral homes) which act as drop in centres for any resident over 65. Places for retired people with free time to meet and chat, read the papers, play cards and exchange the latest news. But do remember, this is Andorra. The great majority of llar members will be Catalan-speakers who are usually also fluent in French and Spanish – but not English. Maybe this is the moment to take up Andorra’s official language?

The main, light-filled room of the La Massana Casa Pairal (more often called the llar) is spacious enough to hold afternoon dances. Here are computers and wifi, a wide screen TV and a sewing area complete with sewing machine. Conxita, queen of the llar, serves economical teas and coffees behind the bar from where she keeps a friendly eye on everyone. There are tables and chairs for workshops, games and puzzles. From time to time Andorra’s International Club meet here to play Bridge and Mar Jong. It is also where llar members sign up for a long list of possible activities, most of them free.

They offer gymnastics, aqua-gym, summer and winter walks, Zumba Gold classes and yoga. Then there are handicraft workshops, courses on nutrition and a holistic approach to good health with memory workshops, ‘dancing with the heart’ exercises, sofrologia and art. There’s line and ballroom dancing and the llar has its own choir that practices every week and performs in public.

One of the most popular activities are the subsidised outings to cultural events. And, once a year, the government organises a week-long foreign trip for anyone over 65 who cares to go on a first come first served basis.

Recently La Massana, known for its excellent and informed social services, brought out a “Guide to Social Service Resources” for all parish residents. There, as well as pages about what they offer youngsters, you learn that as part of their remit, the local traffic police provide 24h attention to citizens and especially those living alone. When Edward fell in the bedroom at 3am and I couldn’t get him up, I called 164 and within minutes two burly firemen arrived to help him back to bed. They can also call out a duty doctor or ambulance or collect urgently needed medicines from the on-duty night pharmacy.

Some of the larger Cases Pairals have their own restaurants but La Massana has a different approach. Since 2010 they have been offering subsidised meals at a number of collaborating local restaurants so that the elderly get out into the community and maintain their position in society. The comú has a set budget for this and, when the funds run out, then so do the meal vouchers, at least until the following year. But while the money lasts each member of the Llar can collect a meal ticket the day before they want to eat out, pay 5€ and go off and enjoy a good, nutritious meal.

La Massana’s library offers home delivery of books and magazines, films, documentaries, opera and music CDs. There’s a wig lending service for those undergoing chemotherapy and technical equipment such as tilting beds, wheelchairs, and walking frames that can be borrowed for free.

At the moment Andorra has four Residential homes. Sant Vincent and El Cedre are part of SAAS, the national healthcare system and only accept people who are insured with them. These members receive substantial help with their monthly costs. There are also two private residential homes. One, Clara Rabassa, was founded by its namesake for the housing of single, elderly people while the other, La Salita, opened its doors about a year ago. In an edifice built for the purpose, it gives more the feeling of a hotel than an old people’s home and is part of a large Spanish group called SARquavitae. However, as in every other country, all Andorra’s homes have waiting lists and not enough beds to go round.

Every year in October Andorra’s seniors enjoy a massive jamboree with retired people from all the llars and the residential homes gathering together for the Festa Magna, an evening of wining and dining and dancing to live music. Organised by the Ministry of Social Affairs in collaboration with all the Associations of Gent Gran, the party is attended by the Cap de Govern himself, the Sindic, several ministers, the mayors from all the comuns and some 500 people over 65 hell bent on having a good time. No wonder Andorra leads the world in healthcare. No one has time to get sick.

Culturally yours,

Clare

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Look for about the author of the blog Clare Allcard

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