After struggling with homelessness for four years, 101-year-old gets help and returns to school

With no permanent home, I sought refuge in hidden corners, on icy streets, and even in graveyards. Facing extreme weather and overwhelming fatigue I often landed in the hospital. My daily life consisted of wandering until exhaustion overcame me.

  • 6 months ago
  • November 11, 2023
6 min read
interview subject
 Mercedes Fernandez, born on January 12, 1922 in Venado Tuerto, Argentina, has resided in Escobar since the age of four. Following the passing of her husband, Mercedes faced challenging times, leading to a period of homelessness. Her resilience shone through as she embarked on a journey to fulfill a lifelong dream: completing her secondary education at 101 years old. Residing in an elderly home, she independently attends classes, a testament to her active lifestyle and pursuit of personal autonomy.
background information
Active social engagement and group activities such as sports, academics, or the arts have been linked to increased longevity and healthier aging. This connection is particularly significant as global demographics shift. By 2030, it’s projected that one in six individuals worldwide will be over 60, with the elderly population rising from 1 billion in 2020 to 1.4 billion. This trend underscores the growing interest in strategies for healthy aging and well-being in the older population. Read more about this study.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – For three decades, I took care of my husband whose health gradually deteriorated due to diabetes. My commitment to him never wavered, even as he lost the ability to see or speak. When he died, I felt like a lost part of myself, and I spiraled into crisis. Engulfed by pain and sadness, my weight dropped dramatically, and I became frail. The world turned dark, and I felt trapped in despair. Soon, that grief left me homeless, and I spent four years drifting.

With no permanent home, I sought refuge in hidden corners, on icy streets, and even in graveyards. Facing extreme weather and overwhelming fatigue I often landed in the hospital. My daily life consisted of wandering until exhaustion overcame me. I often sought solace at the Railway Pensioners’ Centre, relying on them for my daily sustenance. Finally, the staff at the Centre intervened and helped me obtain housing at the Eva Perón Nursing Home. I suddenly discovered a community that nurtured me so I could heal. It felt like a rebirth.

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I cried for days when I finally realized how lonely I had been being homeless

When I was out on the streets, those years of hardship drained the life out of me. I often lost track of time and found myself enveloped in emotional despair. When the staff at the Railway Pensioners’ Centre, where I would eat my meals took notice of me it felt like a ray of light shining through the clouds.

They reached out to the Social Development department on my behalf, and that led to my admission into the Eva Perón Nursing Home. At first, adjusting to my new environment felt strange, but I quickly adapted. I suddenly realized how lonely I had been, and I cried for days.

As my tears dried, I began to feel joy and hope. I started engaging in activities that fostered my independence and I embraced life with a new energy. In this supportive environment, I dared to dream again and a bold idea emerged: to finally complete my secondary education.

Despite the fears and doubts that come with being my age, I embraced the challenge with determination. Dreams can feel daunting when you are in your 100s, yet they can also be inspiring. The decision to go back to school marked a significant turning point in my life.

Reentering the classroom at 101 took me back to my childhood

The director at the nursing home Noelia Alegre Pivar, and the social worker Elizabeth Villanueva, proved instrumental in realizing my dream. They liaised with the Secondary Education Centre for Adults CENS 451, enrolling me in the senior program.

Hearing the words, “Mercedes, you are enrolled,” filled me with an incredible sense of accomplishment and tears of joy streamed down my cheeks. I felt an outpouring of love from the staff, the other residents, and the nurses. Their encouragement became a celebration of my personal victory and my resilient spirit.

Some people had mixed emotions to my decision to go back to school at 101. When someone expressed surprise or even acted as though I was out of my mind, I pushed on and remained steadfast in my commitment. On my first school day, I awoke early, buzzing with excitement and nerves. I had tossed and turned the night before, filled with anticipation.

After a simple breakfast of milk and bread, I prepared my things and set off for the institute. At the door, a line of supporters greeted me with cheers and a standing ovation, shouting, “Bravo, Mercedes!” Entering the classroom, I a wave of nostalgia hit me. The benches, tables, blackboard, and cardboard decorations, along with the familiar smell of books and notes, took me back to my childhood.

The morning sun shone through the window, casting a magical glow over everything. I took my seat next to a classmate much younger than me, feeling a sense of accomplishment for myself. This was the realization of a dream I had harbored for years.

To me, being 101 symbolizes the rich journey of my life

Each day, I meticulously record and review everything I learn. My memory serves me well; sometimes it keeps me awake at night as I replay the day’s lessons. From arithmetic and language to the heroic stories of Manuel Belgrano and San Martín, my mind remains active. Thoughts about what I learned that day dance through my mind as sleep finally takes over.

This December marks a milestone: I will graduate and receive my diploma. I eagerly anticipate the celebration being planned in my honor. My next goal is to specialize in gerontological assistance, aiming to support my peers at home. Even if my time is limited, I believe striving for this goal is worthwhile.

Meanwhile, I stay active at a center for retirees, where singing and dancing bring me immense joy. I’m also part of a vegetable garden project, delighting in the tactile pleasure of soil and the satisfaction of nurturing life. I have helped create a butterfly garden, a serene haven that offers me peace.

My advanced years don’t weigh me down. To me, being 101 symbolizes the rich journey of my life. My favorite activity is walking. I revel in every step through my neighborhood, immersed in the sensory experiences of the sun, wind, rain, and the changing seasons. These walks are more than just exercise; they’re a celebration of life. 

As I walk, I sing. I greet passersby and remind myself of the endless possibilities in life. With each step I repeat the affirmation, “Yes, it can be done!” While I faced dark period when I was homeless, I learned resilience in the face of adversity. My journey from taking care of my husband, to overcoming homelessness, to getting my diploma at 101 years old is a testament to the enduring spirit of hope.

All photos courtesy of Eva Perón Nursing Home team.

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