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Hanging with the Abuelos: Rota Sailors Participate in Alzheimer’s Association COMREL

08 February 2024

From Courtney Pollock

Sitting amongst an animated group of abuelos, Spanish for grandparents, are Sailors from Navy Medical Readiness and Training Command (NMRTC) Rota. The Sailors are here for a weekly community relations (COMREL) event at La Asociación de Familiares de Enfermos de Alzheimer y otras Demencias «El Arenal de Rota» (AFA EL ARENAL DE ROTA) in Rota, Spain.
Sitting amongst an animated group of abuelos, Spanish for grandparents, are Sailors from Navy Medical Readiness and Training Command (NMRTC) Rota. The Sailors are here for a weekly community relations (COMREL) event at La Asociación de Familiares de Enfermos de Alzheimer y otras Demencias «El Arenal de Rota» (AFA EL ARENAL DE ROTA) in Rota, Spain. While they may speak different languages, they have found commonality in laughter, smiles, and shared activities.

“It's a mutual enthusiasm to see our friends each week,” said Lt. Ryan Twaddle, a general dentist at NMRTC Rota. “The abuelos know we come on Tuesdays, and we look forward to talking about our weekends, upcoming fiestas, past vacations or time spent with family.”

Twaddle and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Rocio Jimenez Lopez, assigned to dental/prosthodontics department, wanted to incorporate an ongoing service opportunity for NMRTC Sailors within the local community.

“The NMRTC Rota MWR team wanted to start regular service opportunities for our staff, but we wanted a COMREL that matched our mission as caregivers,” explained Twaddle.

For Jimenez Lopez, the reason was a bit more personal. She is originally from Seville, Spain, so connecting Sailors with locals was important to her.

They approached Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota Community Relations Specialist, Alejandra Tirapu Lucero, to see what opportunities were available locally. After some research, they visited the association and decided it would be a perfect fit.

“Although we aren't providing healthcare, our experience in bedside manner and developing rapport with patients helps us connect with the abuelos,” said Twaddle.

Each week the Sailors are warmly welcomed by the abuelos and staff to the center. The Sailors then break off into group – typically with one Spanish-speaker per group – to begin the coordination-focused activity prepared by the staff. Jimenez Lopez has taken the lead on serving as an on-site liaison between the staff, abuelos, and Sailors.

“Some weeks we color, make crafts and sort items to maintain hand skills,” said Twaddle. “Other times we chat with abuelos while they do their physical therapy or complete their computer activities. Often times though, they will start singing and soon the whole room will erupt in clapping, singing and music!”

While the center only provides care for 60 participants, the ripples are felt throughout the Rota community. Javier Martin, the psychologist for the center, estimates that there are over 600 persons within the Rota community with a cognitive behavior such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc. Extend that to their families and the number grows to approximately 1,800 impacted community members. The time, energy, and involvement put forth by the NMRTC Sailors of this COMREL is felt throughout the community.

One volunteer told the story of shopping in Rota and being asked where she worked. When she said the base hospital, the employee responded, “There’s a group from the hospital that visit my mom each week. She really looks forward to those visits.”

This type of validation is why Twaddle and Jimenez Lopez started this COMREL – to find commonality, share their daily life and cultures, give back, and enrich their time stationed here. For many involved – both Sailors and residents – this weekly COMREL has become a highlight.

As the group continues to evolve and change with upcoming PCS season, Twaddle and Jimenez Lopez are confident that this COMREL will continue because all the Sailors who participate enjoy the interactions with locals.
“It's easy to have a routine: wake up, go to work, go home, repeat,” said Twaddle. “COMRELs provide an opportunity to positively disrupt your day, develop new relationships and experience more of what a duty station has to offer.”

Jimenez Lopez agrees, adding that for many of the unaccompanied Sailors, the COMREL can be their home away from home. “This can be their Spanish abuelos!”

NMRTC Rota serves as a force multiplier in Navy Medicine's strategic global medical support mission throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East while also supporting operational readiness and maintaining a strategic repository of expertise at the Naval Hospital Rota military treatment facility within the Iberian Peninsula.

As the "Gateway to the Mediterranean,” NAVSTA Rota provides U.S., NATO and allied forces a strategic hub for operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. NAVSTA Rota is a force multiplier, capable of promptly deploying and supporting combat-ready forces through land, air and sea, enabling warfighters and their families, sustaining the fleet and fostering the U.S. and Spanish partnership.
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