Dying alone

Hasmik Baleyan

Text by Hasmik Baleyan
Illustrations by Livija Viksna Yde

62-year-old Karen fears dying alone. He and his wife Silva, 56, are childless and live in
a village in Vayots Dzor, in south-east Armenia.

“Getting older and living without someone to care for us frightens me,” he said.

The couple suffers from minor health ailments -- Silva has hypertension – but they worry their health will worsen as they age and they have no one to care for them.

Karen and Silva’s problem is not unusual. Nations around the world, from Japan to the UK, are grappling with how to handle a generation of pensioners with no one to care for them. The population aged 65 and over is growing faster than any other age group around the world.

While Western societies are more open to the idea of senior citizens living in state or private retirement homes, the notion is largely repellant to Armenia’s traditional society.

According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, 14 percent of the population of the Republic of Armenia - 420,000 people - are over the age of 63.

A 2018 study showed that approximately 14,000-15,000 pensioners live alone in Armenia, according to Anahit Gevorgyan, head of the department for elderly affairs at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

There are 1,210 elderly people living in four state-run nursing homes in Armenia and in the Dzorak Mental Health Center, according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

 “About 10 percent of them need care based on their age and health problems. Through the services are provided by the private and public sectors, we care for the needs of only about 10,000 people,” she says.

The government is also working on a strategy to improve the level of care for senior citizens. The document aims not only to improve their social status, but also to create the conditions necessary for the active, dignified and healthy aging.

But for now, Karen and Silva are ashamed about their situation: in Armenia, tradition dictates families should care for their elderly. That leaves few options for people who do not have children or close relatives.

“It is unusual for our people to take a parent to a nursing home. Usually children respect, love and care for their parents, and teach their children do the same,” noted psychologist Samvel Khudoyan.

He said he always tries to reassure childless couples that there is more to life than raising children -- and just having a child is not a guarantee that they will be cared for in their old age.

Khudoyan noted that if the couple loves each other, that is already a good sign. Other positive steps include having a pet and maintaining strong friendships. But many still harbor a deep fear that they will be left to fend for themselves as they get older, he added.

“Over the years, that fear goes deeper, especially when couples have some health problems, and they are more likely to feel the absence of a child who would love and care for them.”

That fear can even erode a marriage in Armenia, noted psychologist Mihrdat Madatyan. Women in particular feel pressure to have children, and can experience discrimination and even abuse from their in-laws if they do not get pregnant “on time,” he said.

Sociologist Gevorg Poghosyan noted that there are cases when people divorce because they cannot have children. “It should be emphasized that in the villages it is important to have a baby at least a few years after marriage and, if after many years of marriage the woman has not been able to become pregnant, this causes many problems in families, and as I have said, often divorce follows,” he said.

On average, women in Armenia have their first child around the age of 27. Narine, 57, was 36 when she and her husband had their first child. The couple, who lived in Aragatsotn region, near the capital Yerevan, struggled with infertility for 12 years.  

She recalls how difficult life was when she and her husband, Norik, struggled to have a child. The lack of a child caused turmoil at home; Narine and her husband even had to move out of her in-laws’ home.

 “Many families were destroyed [due to infertility]. Lots of husbands left their wives because they weren’t able to have a child,” she recalls.

Narine said for years she was depressed and there were times she couldn’t stop crying, scared that she would never give birth. But her husband, Norik, always supported her.

“My husband said that if we weren’t able to have a child, we wouldn’t divorce. He always stood by me and helped me to overcome my fears. When I became pregnant after 12 years of marriage and our child was born, it was like a magic for us,” Narine said.

She noted, however, that women who become pregnant later in life are often not accepted in the village, either. Instead of enjoying their happiness, they can become ashamed of their status and worry they are too old to be good  mothers.

“I was also ashamed but quickly overcame it. I was very happy and proud that I was finally becoming a mother,” Narine said.

She added that while she, her husband and daughter have a good life now, she worries about her daughter’s future -- and her prospects for dying alone.

 “I am 57 years old, and my husband is 64. We are both afraid that one day we will die and our daughter will be alone. She is our only child, she doesn’t have any sisters or brothers, so we think that she won’t have any support when we will be gone,” Narine says.

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