How do the elderly survive?

Seniors in Georgia 88 248 (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Seniors in Georgia 88 248
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
It's hard to believe that Anna Becker was once a fearless young doctor who traveled the length of the Soviet Union saving people's lives when today, at 82, she has been reduced to living in four freezing rooms that could, in the next few months, be taken away, leaving her penniless and homeless. Becker has lived in the back rooms of this crumbling, impossible-to-heat house located in the old, run-down part of Tbilisi since she arrived here with her parents from Ukraine at two. The place Becker calls home comprises an entrance hallway, which she uses as a dining room, a small kitchen, a living room too cold to use and a bedroom, where the walls left cracked and peeling by a 2003 earthquake have yet to be repaired. "My parents had to pay money so that they could migrate to this city," says Becker, who never married but has a sister living in Israel. "We were assigned to live in this apartment by the authorities even though we never actually owned it." However, according to Becker, who broke her hip last year and is now confined indoors, the original owners, who let her continue living there rent free even after the communist era, want to sell the place and have asked her to move out as soon as possible. "The family lives in Israel now and they came back in the summer to tell me that I had to leave," she says. Tatyana Jarskaja, who visits Becker almost every day to help with her basic needs, confirms the bad news. "We still have no idea where Anna will go from here if they kick her out." A trained nurse, Jarskaja says that she cares for six other bedridden elderly people who cannot physically join in the activities at the nearby Tbilisi Jewish Center. She is one of several Joint Distribution Committee employees who provide elderly Jews with home health and sanitation care. "I go to the doctor for them, buy their prescriptions, pay their bills and bring them food parcels," she says. "Without this help these people would simply die." According to JDC representatives in Georgia, there are roughly 1,500 elderly Jews who receive a wide range of basic services, including food parcels, food credit cards, home care, medication, winter relief and rehabilitation, from the local Hessed Center. With no official system of social welfare benefits, apart from a meager old-age pension, for most of these people the JDC pensioners' program is their main line of survival. "It's a standard model throughout the former Soviet Union," explains Rina Edelstein, JDC's director of donor relations there. "Every elderly person is assessed according to his individual needs. Of course the level of hunger here is extreme but the living conditions are also in a poor state, with many people living without electricity, heating or the right tools to make food." As for Becker, her impending homelessness weighs heavily on her mind "I don't know where I will go if I leave here," she says sadly, adding that it might not seem like much, but it's the only home she has ever known.