“That’s who I am now, I’m the on-call grandmother.”
In a Bucharest hospital, a baby connected to a variety of medical devices squeezes the finger of the elderly woman who has just bottle-fed him.
“The little one doesn’t want to let me leave,” she says, full of emotion.
The heart monitor is a testament to the power of affection. After being held and coddled, the child’s heart rate has decreased and his blood pressure has returned to normal.
The scene is a tender illustration of the strong bond between grandparent and grandchild. Even if the grandparent is a volunteer.
“These grandparents have reminded us how important it is to give.”
Mihaela Ungureanu is the Director of the District 4 Social Assistance and Child Protection agency in Bucharest. Four years ago, Mihaela decided that it would be a good idea for the seniors in her District to have a place where they could meet and enjoy each others company. She named it “The Senior’s Club.”
On March 26, she welcomed us to the club. Seniors in the club were imitating the dance moves of a young instructor, busy swinging his hips to Latin vibes.
Last year, as the club was growing on a daily basis, Mihaela Ungureanu had a new idea. What if some seniors in the club could learn foreign languages, origami and dance and then teach these activities to the children who were in the care of Child Services?
“We started the program “Volunteer Grandparents,” with the recognition that many of the grandparents who attend our Seniors’ Club do not have grandchildren living in Romania. Some of them do not have grandchildren at all.
Alternatively, many of the children in the care of Child Services never had the chance to be doted on by grandparents or even hear a bedtime story read to them by a grandparent.”
The program “Volunteer Grandparents” had its debut in a shelter for homeless single mothers. More recently, the program made its way to the Marie Curie Children’s Hospital in Bucharest.
“The experience of feeling useful and having responsibility was extraordinary for our grandparents. Naturally, the children were so happy to have the grandparents to engage them in their own unique way.” recounts Mihaela Ungureanu.
Initially, 37 volunteers registered for the volunteer program in the Marie Curie Hospital. Now, the number of volunteers has reached 400.
Many of the infants in the Intensive Care Unit are from impoverished parents from around the country. These children remain in the hospital for weeks or even months at a time. Frequently, familial circumstance does not allow for the babies’ parents to remain with them.
“In the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of the Marie Curie Hospital, there are many small children with complicated medical issues that require lots of medical attention. The children need to be cared for, but more so than anything, these children need affection,” explains Mihaela Ungureanu.
There is a three-week training program for the grandparents. They get drilled in the hospital’s procedures for hygiene and infection control, under the supervision of Cătălin Cârstoveanu, head of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
“These grandparents reminded us how important it is to give and have brought much attention to the importance of volunteer work. It was extraordinary to see how many people joined this volunteer team to ensure that the children are well-cared for,” said Mihaela Ungureanu.
“He felt the warmth of human touch during his last few days on earth.”
Mrs. Matilda Ziegler (71 years old), is the first volunteer grandparent we met.
Before she retired, Matilda was a Neurological Intensive Care nurse. But she was drawn to the program for another reason – as a child she was raised in a foster home.
“Here in Romania, we should develop many more volunteer programs so that people could visit seniors’ homes, foster homes and centers for children with disabilities. I know that not everyone feels comfortable working with disabled children. But we shouldn’t differentiate between a healthy child and a child with disabilities,” she says.
Matilda’s first ‘grandchild’ was a 20-month-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. He was the “oldest” child in the unit and had many complications. His new grandmother fed him with a syringe because he could only be tube-fed through his mouth.
“When I went in for the first time, the nurse asked who wanted to spend time with him and I volunteered. When I took him in my arms, he felt my warmth for him. He immediately calmed down! I felt extraordinary in his presence. I didn’t see the fact that he had Down Syndrome, I saw a little boy.”
The little boy died just days after Mrs. Matilda held him in her arms for the very first time.
“He felt genuine love during his last few days on earth… He was so dear to me,” she says.
His death did not discourage Mrs. Matilda. On the contrary, she continues to volunteer at the Neonatal ICU department of the Marie Curie Hospital today, firmly believing that children experience healing and recovery, in part due to her presence.
“We spend two to three hours with them. We change them, bottle-feed them, sing to them and play with them. We make the sounds of a dog, a cat, or a rooster. And we see them light up. You see joy on their face. That’s the most important thing!”
“It was the first time I held such a small child in my arms.”
When the seniors hear that we would like to learn more about their experiences as volunteers, one by one, they come and speak to us about their “grandchildren.”
All of them agree that this experience has changed their lives for the better. All of them agree that they are always eager to get to the hospital.
As the volunteers at Marie Curie Hospital get ready for the morning feeding, Lina Truță, (79 years old), comes over to tell me a secret:
“You know what, Miss; I’ve never had a child! For the first in my life, I have the opportunity to change diapers…”
She slowly leans back on the chair. She is serene and looks as if she has just rid herself of a great burden.
“For me, being that it was the first time I held a small child…my legs felt weak the first time I rocked her in my arms. Now, she is always on my mind. It breaks my heart to know that she is alone. I can’t wait to go back and see her.
I go to the hospital half an hour early. I love her very much! You know, this project has changed my life, her life and now I can say, our lives…”
As I walk out the doorway, another volunteer grandmother, whispers to me:
“What you see here is kind of like an experiment between an elderly person and a child. Two separate souls that are in need of affection. Remarkably, the affection is reciprocated! We feel the affection as do the children!”
Two of the retirees, Mrs. Ioana and Mrs. Maga, work as team caring for a baby with serious medical needs.
“We’re going to see our granddaughter,” they laugh.
Mrs. Maga says she enjoys relearning the songs of her childhood, as she sings to her granddaughter.
“I began coming here because I never had grandchildren. Now, I’m attached to this little girl. For four hours a day, I hold her and sing to her. We learn a new song everyday. The nurses say she now only goes to sleep if she is rocked with the gentle sounds of music.”
Her co-grandma, Mrs. Ioana proudly adds, “She is only three and a half months old and already beginning to play with her fingers and toes.”
Ioana Antonescu (73) has ten grandchildren from her three sons and two daughters. But that was not enough for her.
The volunteers confess that the complicated medical devices and wires were intimidating at first, but the nurses encouraged them to be ambitious.
Now, they all hold the children in their arms with wires connecting the baby’s heart to a monitor. Once they step in the hospital door and wear their green dressing gowns, these women turn into professional grandmothers — meticulous, preoccupied, rigorous.
Sometimes, they are alarmed by a sneeze or a hiccup.