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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Human Touch Offers Pensioners Respite

Elderly are hit the hardest by poverty in post-Soviet Georgia

It was a retirement plan no one could interfere with – or so Vera Rodnova thought.

In the early 1950’s, Ms. Rodnova escaped the hunger and poverty of post-World War II Russia and moved to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, then one of the Soviet Union’s most prosperous republics.

“First I thought I would work for a while and then go back home. But I married, my husband and I built a house and my parents in Russia died. There was no reason for me to go back. My life was here,” she recalled.

The death of her husband in 1979 left Ms. Rodnova with the tough prospect of aging alone. But 30 years of work as an administrator at the Tbilisi Railway Station guaranteed her a Soviet pension. And that, together with her modest savings, would be enough to secure her retirement, she thought. Then, she said, it all went wrong.

“It was like waking up and realizing that overnight everything you have worked for has gone down the drain,” she said.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the relative stability of Soviet times gave way to civil war and economic chaos. The elderly were hit the hardest: passports, pension funds and the savings accounts of thousands of pensioners were annulled. The price Georgia had to pay for its independence – instability, electricity blackouts and hardship – proved too high for many.

“In the beginning of the 90’s, we stood in queues for bread all nightlong,” Ms. Rodnova remembered. “You could not find groceries to buy, there was nothing. For some it has since gotten better.”

Things have since improved, but for those like Ms. Rodnova, things have not. Today, bread queues and empty supermarket shelves are no longer part of everyday life. But while Georgia’s economy slowly picks up, the country’s some 500,000 elderly have been left behind. For them, change for the better is elusive. In a country riddled with corruption and budgetary problems, social service programs are left without resources. Pensions and other payments are well below $1 per day – the absolute poverty level adopted by the World Bank. In Georgia, old-age pensions amount to about 20 cents per day.

This means that Ms. Rodnova, who does not have the traditional safety net of a family on which to fall back, is left to survive on a monthly pension of just $8. And in a country where a welfare system no longer exists, this is nowhere near enough to make ends meet.

“No one needs us,” sighed Ms. Rodnova as she put the kettle on a small gas heater in her tiny kitchen. Even refilling this heater is often beyond her reach.

“Winters are the most difficult of all. Electricity is off for days sometimes and it is freezing here. So I just have to bundle up and go to bed. Often I don’t have four lari ($1.50) to refill the gas, so I cannot even make myself a cup of tea,” she said.

And yet, despite all hardships and problems, despite disappointment and the frightening prospect of her deteriorating health, Ms. Rodnova said she is among the lucky ones.

“About a year ago, a young man came up to me,” Ms. Rodnova explained.

“He asked me if I lived alone or had any family.” As a lone pensioner, he told her, she was eligible for membership in a soup kitchen run by Caritas Georgia, a social service agency of the Catholic Church receiving support from CNEWA.

Since then, Ms. Rodnova’s entire pension has been spent on a daily subway ride that takes her across town to the large building that houses one of Caritas Georgia’s soup kitchens. The ride is worth it, she said.

“I am not hungry anymore. It’s a long ride across town, but without it I don’t know how I would survive,” she added.

Since its establishment in November 1994, Caritas Georgia has been stretching a helping hand to the victims of Georgia’s shattered welfare system. Among the beneficiaries are pensioners, abandoned and orphaned children, refugees from Georgia’s war zones and victims of natural disasters. Ms. Rodnova’s soup kitchen, launched seven years ago, was among the first Caritas Georgia launched.

Today, the soup kitchen provides food for some 400 people a day. According to Keti Tskitishvili, manager of Caritas, this is well below what is needed.

“Our resources are limited, and we need to make sure we feed those who need this food the most. Many people come to us for help. Unfortunately, we have to say no to some of them. This is always difficult,” Ms. Tskitishvili said.

There is an air of both gratitude and humiliation in the spacious dining room of the soup kitchen. Seated at square tables under tall windows are former teachers, doctors and engineers. However different their life stories, all have been united at the dusk of life by betrayed expectations of a safe retirement. Most of them have been abandoned by children who have fled Georgia in search of a better life overseas or simply refused the burden of caring for elderly parents.

“My son told me he does not need me,” an old woman said as she tried to hide her tears by bending her head low toward a bowl of lentil soup. Her hands shook from Parkinson’s disease that she cannot afford to treat. A former teacher, she said she is too embarrassed to give her name. “I never imagined I’d have to spend my retirement like this.”

An old man sitting next to her shook his head in disapproval. “You shouldn’t be ashamed,” he said. “It’s not you who should be embarrassed, it’s the government. We’ve been thrown out like garbage.”

The Georgian government, handicapped by lack of money, widespread corruption and endless bureaucratic problems, simply does not have the money to help.

“It’s difficult and it’s tragic. Our resources are not enough,” said an official at the Ministry of Social Services and Health Care. “We have no money to help these people.”

Filling the wide gaps of government deficiencies is a daunting task – especially when it comes to the elderly, said Father Witold Szulczynski, Caritas Georgia’s General Director.

“The government does nothing; it has also been difficult for us to raise money for the elderly,” he said.

“When it comes to children and orphans, people are more willing to give. But the elderly are forgotten. While it is true that children are the future of the country, it is also important to remember that these people built this country, that they have spent their entire lives working for it. Forgetting them now is unacceptable.”

Nevertheless, Caritas Georgia has been doing its best. Just a few streets down the road from the soup kitchen, Caritas Georgia is trying to improve another harsh reality of modern Georgia – a failed health care system.

More than 1,500 people are registered at Caritas’ clinic in Tbilisi, one of four that Caritas administers in the country. During 2002 alone, more than 15,000 patients were assisted.

“We manage to see about 30 people a day,” said one of the doctors, Nina Skhirkladze. “The workload is high and unfortunately because money is often scarce we cannot afford to receive as many people as we’d like.”

Despite struggles with money, there have been some improvements, including the opening of a physiotherapy center this autumn.

Dr. Skhirkladze said she would also like to see the expansion of home nursing services, which today provide daily assistance to 40 bedridden patients and deliver daily meals to 18 elderly residents of Tbilisi.

“As our patients get older, many of them can no longer get to us. We need to be able to reach out to them,” Dr. Skhirkladze explained.

Expansion is difficult: There are only three nurses serving 40 patients and there is no money to hire more. And so three Caritas nurses, Nelli Vartanova, Diana Karetina and Liana Avetisova, who have been working with bedridden patients ever since the program was launched four years ago, do their best with the few resources available. Their workday starts early and often goes late into the night as they move from one impoverished household to the next, from one story of a devastated life to the next.

“The desperation and poverty we encounter made the job very difficult in the beginning,” said Ms. Vartanova. “But then, it sort of grows on you. You become not just a nurse, but also the closest person these people have. It’s always difficult, but it’s also rewarding.”

Proudly, she entered the tiny room of one of her favorite patients, 82-year-old Natasha Dolmazashvili, who greets us from her bed. There is good reason to be proud. Just a few weeks ago there were holes in the walls, the windows were broken and rats squeaked in the corners. Today, there is brand-new blue wallpaper and curtains decorate the new windows. Holes have been filled and the unwelcome rats have been eliminated.

“A few days ago, with help from one of our volunteers, we fixed the place up a bit,” Ms. Vartanova said.

“It looks very nice,” she added, stroking Ms. Dolmazashvili’s cheek.

“Well, I just have to believe you,” the elderly woman responded with a smile.

Ms. Dolmazashvili is almost blind and confined to her tiny room that holds nothing but a bed, a closet and a chair. A small table in the corner serves as a kitchen.

“The problem is that our Natasha often sets her house on fire,” the nurse laughed. “She just likes giving me more work.”

Between them an affectionate abundance of jokes and tricks has developed since Ms. Vartanova started visiting three years ago. There is a whole range of responsibilities that she has taken, and they go far beyond meeting Ms. Dolmazashvili’s basic needs.

To illustrate one of the nurse’s responsibilities, Ms. Dolmazashvili’s stretched her hand out and a wide smile brightened her face: “Do you like my nails?”

It is impossible not to like them. Her hands are beautiful and the pink polish of her perfectly shaped nails clashes with the deprived surroundings of her tiny room.

When we left the room, Ms. Vartanova’s face became serious again.

“She is a courageous woman. She never whines, she always tries to be cheerful and always tries to look good. That’s admirable.”

As the nurse made her way to the household of another retired, bedridden patient she reflected on her work. “At least we manage to help some of them. But there are so many whom we are not able to reach.”

Caritas’ work may be a drop in the huge ocean of misery and poverty that comes with age in Georgia. But for people like Vera or Natasha, this drop has provided not only food and medicine, but also the warmth of human interaction – and for the Natashas and Veras of Georgia, this has made an ocean of difference.

Tbilisi-based writer Natalia Antelava is a BBC News Online correspondent.

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