John SaundersMost of us come to Spain for a better life, and it's natural for us to focus on all the good things about our new home like the sunshine, the easy-going life-style, the cheap food and drink, and perhaps we even envisage ending our days here in peace and tranquility.

In some ways it's also natural not to think through some of the more negative things that could happen to us while we're living here, but the problem is that we are often not as prepared as we should be when they arise.

John Saunders who is president of the Help Association of Torrevieja and his wife June come into daily contact with people who find themselves in difficulty for all sorts of reasons. "More and more people who arrive in the Torrevieja area are completely unaware of the way things work in Spain, so it all comes as a big shock." For example, if they are hospitalised, many people are amazed to discover that they are discharged before they are able to care for themselves. The reason for this is that Spanish society is family-orientated and the system relies on the patient`s families for aftercare. People are also not sufficiently aware of the importance of signing on the padron and obtaining residence permission. If people need help from the local social services, the first question they are asked is how long they have been signed on to the padron, and this will affect whether they are eligible for help or not. Another problem can arise when couples are not married. If a common-law couple are not signed onto the padron and one partner dies, the other has no say whatsoever in what happens to their loved one's remains, and instead the next of kin are contacted by the authorities. This terribly stressful situation can be avoided by signing onto the padron as partners. Another example is when a couple have an English but not a Spanish will, the English will is honoured but a long bureaucractic process has to be gone through before much needed funds can be released.

Help Association do their best to support people in these and many other difficult circumstances, but so much distress could be prevented by a little foresight. "We are now working more and more towards providing information for people to prevent a crisis arising." June, who is a professional writer, is in the process of revising all the charity's information sheets about residence applications, crime reports, bereavement and so on, so that people can understand what they need to do to help themselves. Of course this is in addition to, and not instead of, all their usual hard work of helping people in so many ways.

So what does the Help Association get involved with on a day to day basis? "To put it simply, we are a registered charity whose objective is to respond to the needs of the English speaking community." This often means being there in an emergency such as a bag snatch, car robbery or credit card fraud. They can help people through the maze of officialdom when they are least able to do this for themselves. The charity loans out a wide range of orthopaedic equipment including about 35 wheelchairs at any given time. As well as the helpers who maintain and loan out this equipment the charity has several teams of dedicated volunteers – a hospital visiting team of 32 people, over 30 people who man the office on a rota basis, a team of fundraisers, carers, drivers and interpreters. "In some ways we act like the extended family which the Spanish have and we foreigners on the Costa Blanca lack." The hospital team visits the Vega Baja hospital three times a week and seeks out any English speaking patients there, often helping them in all sorts of practical ways. They have also been involved in helping to trace missing persons. They organise a monthly social luncheon and charity sale, and an annual charity ball in October. Over a period of years, Help Association has raised money to help the local health authorities which are inundated with patients. They have donated two ECG machines to the Torrevieja health centres, and to the Vega Baja hospital they have donated computer equipment to the Emergency Department, a cardiograph and refrigeration equipment for blood plasma.

Another project which is dear to the hearts of the Help Association committee is the opening of a Day Care Centre. The idea is to provide help to the carers of people in need. These people, often the close relatives of the disabled or terminally ill, tend to be forgotten and it can mean a great deal to them to be able to leave their loved ones in good hands for a short time each week, and enjoy a much needed break. Also, of course, the house-bound patient can benefit hugely from the stimulus of a change of environment and company. The Help Association receives no official grant money or premises from the authorities so the day care centre would be entirely run by donations and fund-raising activities. They are already putting feelers out to see if the centre is a viable proposition, but there is still a long way to go.

The Help Association invites new members and are always in need of volunteers. Apart from this, what else should English speaking people on the Costa Blanca do to help themselves? "A lot of it comes down to attitude. Some people just do not realise or will not accept that Spain is different and not all the same benefits and services are available from the state." However, some things do function here and should be used. You should know your own way to the local emergency department, which in the case of Torrevieja and Orihuela Costa is the Vega Baja Hospital in Orihuela. If you need a phone number you can phone directory enquiries (1003) and you will be put through to an English speaking operator, and of course if you are in a real life or death emergency the first number you should dial is 112 (the Spanish equivalent of 999) where again you will be dealt with by an English speaking person.

To round up such a wide-ranging and fascinating interview, John left his final comment for the charity's helpers. "We could never do all this work without such a dedicated and reliable team of volunteers. We are always astonished at how hard they work and we are very fortunate to have them all with us."

This article is published courtesy of CB Friday in association with torrevieja.com

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