A Grandmother’s Love: How One Woman’s Care is Changing Lives in Bogotá

Last Updated: June 16, 2024By

A Grandmother’s Love: How One Woman’s Care is Changing Lives in Bogotá

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Adela Rubiano Hurtado never felt like she made a conscious choice to take care of her granddaughter. It just happened naturally. When Rubiano’s daughter got pregnant at 15 and couldn’t take care of the baby, there was no one else to step in.

“I never saw it as a job or something I decided to do,” says the 67-year-old from her cozy chair at home, which overlooks the busy cityscape of Bogotá, Colombia. “There was simply no one else.”

Her granddaughter, Adriana, is now 20 years old and has moderate cognitive impairment. Adriana needs help with everything, from cooking and cleaning to her schoolwork, which she attends on weekends. This means Rubiano’s life revolves around Adriana’s needs, leaving her little time for herself. Sometimes, she feels stuck.

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“I was often overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do,” Rubiano recalls. “I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. Sometimes, I just wanted to escape.”

A New Hope

Lately, things have started to look up for Rubiano. She’s found new hope and support through a pioneering project aimed at transforming unpaid care work. This project has not only improved her mental health but also helped her appreciate the love and dedication she puts into caring for Adriana.

“I’ve learned a different way of handling things. Now, my house feels peaceful,” Rubiano says with a smile.

In Colombia, and many other places, unpaid caregiving is mostly done by women. Few choose this path, and most don’t receive any training, financial help, or recognition. Colombia took a significant step in 2010 by becoming the first country to pass a law that requires the contributions of unpaid caregivers to be documented.

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A Groundbreaking Program

When Bogotá’s government studied unpaid care workers in 2018, they discovered that around one in three women—about 1.5 million people—were doing this work without much recognition. Shockingly, 90% of them lived in poverty. Most had no formal education, one in five had an illness, and 14% were stuck at home because of their caregiving duties.

Seeing this, Bogotá’s first female mayor, Claudia López, launched an innovative program. It won the Mayors Challenge prize, securing $1 million in funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies in January 2022. Sandra Milena Blanco, one of the project coordinators, explains the situation.

“Caregivers often have little support and don’t know how to access help, which leads to many mental health problems because of the heavy burden they carry,” Blanco says. “They might care for two or three people alone, and sometimes the caregivers themselves need help but are too busy caring for others.”

The plan includes 23 care blocks in Bogotá’s poorer neighborhoods. Caregivers can visit these blocks to talk to a therapist, get legal advice, join workshops or yoga classes, swim, learn computer skills, or even drop off their laundry. They can also bring the people they care for, giving themselves a break.

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“We focus on gender so these women feel heard and valued,” says Claudia Mirta Luna, who oversees the program. “It’s not just about easing their workload but also helping them understand the importance of their work and that they can care for others while also caring for themselves.”

Personal Transformation

Rubiano, sipping her sweet black coffee, reflects on her two decades of caregiving as she watches Adriana paint with Karen Espejo, an educational specialist.

“You notice a change as soon as we arrive,” Espejo says. “Often, we’re the only ones these caregivers can talk to, and just by being here, you see them lighten up.”

Espejo has been helping Adriana, especially with her least favorite subjects.

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“I don’t like numbers,” Adriana admits. “They’re really hard. I love animals and plants, and I enjoy coloring and drawing.”

Using fun teaching methods like painting and plasticine has made a big difference. Espejo also teaches patience and emotional management, avoiding shouting or arguing.

Espejo’s support has brought new confidence and happiness to both Adriana and Rubiano. For the first time in 20 years, Rubiano has time for herself—to go out, do housework, or just watch TV.

In the nine weeks since Espejo started visiting, Adriana has learned to make her bed, dust, wash clothes, and prepare food.

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“It’s incredible,” Rubiano says. “I never thought any of this was possible.”

Mirta explains that these changes are what make the program so effective. Caregivers may visit for four hours a week for 12 weeks, but the result is lasting independence.

“Sometimes caregivers do everything for those they care for, thinking they can’t do it themselves, but that limits progress. Last month, a mother told me that what her daughter is doing now seemed impossible just three months ago,” she says.

Rubiano has used her free time to gain a qualification from Bogotá’s National Training Service. This certification recognizes her caregiving skills, giving her respect and potential job opportunities. Right now, Rubiano relies on a monthly stipend from the state and renting out her spare room to support Adriana. She hopes to do more in the future.

“I think I’d like to work with older people,” she says. “They have such interesting stories and great gossip.”

A Bright Future

The new administration in Bogotá plans to expand the care blocks from 23 to 45 by 2035 and has also introduced mobile care centers. The program has gained international interest, with places like Mexico, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Sierra Leone watching closely.

“This is a big, ambitious idea to shift the care economy on an urban scale,” says James Anderson, head of government innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “This program is addressing the right challenges at the right time, and cities everywhere are paying attention. Care blocks may have started in Bogotá, but their influence will spread far beyond.”

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