The death of a family member, especially one as beloved as Gema Vílchez’s grandmother, a well-known artist in Costa Rica, can bring many responses: sadness, guilt, desperation. For Gema, a 2014 psychology graduate of Universidad Latina de Costa Rica, it was a call to action.
“I am passionate about doing more and helping more people.”
Her grandmother was “like a second mother” to her, and Gema, who was already an active volunteer with many nonprofit organizations, took her grandmother’s death as a prod to start her own initiative. As a psychology student, Gema was especially conscious of the neglect and abandonment that the elderly population often face, leading to many mental health problems. A study by Universidad Latina found that among those living in 27 of the 55 senior care centers in the region, 75 percent of the seniors had been abandoned.
“This problem is not taken seriously like it should be,” Gema said. The psychological side effects of abandonment and disconnectedness are severe, and include depression, low self-esteem and loss of the will to live. The type of psychological care needed is “not part of the current care regimen” in any senior center in the country. Gema has set out to change that.
Proyecto Gerontovida, her initiative, aims to provide “psychological stimulation” and “a community of support” to seniors who otherwise would have no such network. The project sends psychologists and support staff to spend time one-on-one with seniors and help them build networks of friendship and support. Already, the organization is working with six local senior centers, affecting approximately 300 elderly people so far. The organization has been recognized nationally and regionally, has formed partnerships with more than 10 universities and has ambitious plans for further expansion.
Gema cited how hard it was at first to get people to take her project seriously, but the assistance of her university, particularly in the form of leadership courses and business advice, has been key. And for Gema, Proyecto Gerontovida is not just an award-winning nonprofit, but a daily reminder of how hard work can bring positive social change as well as personal joy and fulfillment.
“This is the best job that I think I could have,” Gema said. “And I am passionate about doing more and helping more people.”
Gema is a 2014 Fellow of Universidad Latina de Costa Rica’s YouthActionNet program (2014).