In times of crisis, the elderly in Lebanon have to look after themselves

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BEIRUT Tiny and stooped by age, Marie Orfali makes five trips a week from her Beirut apartment to the local church, charity, and nearby soup kitchen to pick up a cooked meal for her and her 84-year-old husband, Raymond.

Her only support – Raymond’s $ 15,000 one-time payment to end his service since he retired more than 20 years ago – had long ago dried up.

Since then, they’ve relied on charities to cover almost everything: rent, cleaning supplies, pain relievers, and food for their white dog, Snoopy. But charity covers less and less as Lebanon’s currency collapses. The money they get each month from a benefactor and the Church was once $ 400 and is now barely worth $ 40.

76-year-old Marie burst into tears when asked how she was doing. “I’m scared, I’ve gotten nervous,” she said. “I sit and cry and think I want money. I want to get things for the house. “

With practically no national welfare system in place, the elderly in Lebanon are left on their own in the midst of their country’s economic turmoil. In their prime, they survived 15 years of civil war, which began in 1975, and attacks of instability. Now in old age, many have plunged into poverty in one of the worst financial crises in 150 years.

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Lebanon has the largest number of elderly people in the Middle East – 10% of the 6 million population are over 65 years old. Around 80% of the population over 65 have according to International Labor. the United Nations does not have a pension or health insurance organization.

Family members and charities, traditionally the main source of support, struggle with rising needs as unemployment rises.

All of the dollar savings older people had from their lifelong work are locked up in banks that are inaccessible during the banking crisis. The savings lost nearly 90% of their value when the local currency collapsed against the dollar. Imported medicines and staple foods are at risk as a once reliable health system is crumbling.

“I have no money to buy clothes or shoes,” whispered Marie. She didn’t want Raymond to hear her complain. He recently had COVID-19 infection and brain surgery and is excited and it is only made worse by lockdowns and the financial crisis.

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Raymond worked for 26 years as a nurse in one of the hospitals in Beirut and Marie as a nurse at a university.

Now they live in a rented apartment in east Beirut among piles of their belongings, trinkets fill the shelves and pictures of Jesus and the Holy Family adorn every wall. The black suits Raymond once wore to parties – he was a lively dancer – still hang over his bed. There is a bag of bread under the bed for easy access. He moves around the apartment with a walker. Her five children are also struggling and cannot help.

In the past two years, more and more elderly people have taken to the streets looking for trash or begging, said Joe Taoutel, who runs Rafiq el-Darb or Friends till the End, the charity where Marie gets part of her meals every week.

Taoutel is delivering home meals to more than 60 elderly families, up from five prior to the crisis.

“Those who donated before are now in need,” Taoutel said. “First, groups would help their sects. Now the needs have increased and no one can replace the state. “

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According to the ILO, Lebanon is one of only 16 countries in the world without a pension system for private sector workers in the event of old age, disability or death. The national social security program only covers 30% of the labor force, pays mostly one-off retirement payments and is dangerously underfunded.

To rub salt into the wound, a massive explosion in Beirut last summer devastated parts of the city where hundreds of houses of Lebanon’s older Christian population stood, temporarily or permanently displacing them.

The government is struggling to provide for a population in which 55% have been living below the poverty line since the beginning of the crisis in late 2019. The World Bank has provided Lebanon with a $ 246 million loan to provide cash assistance to around 160,000 Lebanese families – but the payout has been delayed. The financial institution said it had no data on how many older people were below the poverty line.

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As the economy falters, more and more young Lebanese are leaving, leaving behind aging parents.

The UN estimates that those over 65 could make up more than 15% of the Lebanese population by 2030, a trend that could accelerate with brain drain and a deteriorating health system.

“Old and disabled people stay. If society is not aware of this problem, I think we are heading for more crises, ”said Mustafa Helweh, director of the Medical Association for Social Services, a rehabilitation hospital and nursing home in Tripoli, northern Lebanon.

Thousands of foreign domestic workers – the backbone of the elderly care system – left the country when dollars were running out. The overburdened health system is no longer considered reliable.

At the height of the pandemic, nursing homes were considered high risk around the world. In Lebanon, some families saw this as the answer.

The 104-year-old Helweh facility can accommodate up to 300 people, a mix of elderly, mentally ill and people with disabilities. At the beginning of the pandemic, admission and visits were suspended.

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When it reopened six months later, 42 new patients were admitted, an unexpected rush. With currency devaluation, a private room now only costs about $ 100 a month. The facility is converting part of the basement for additional rooms, but a plan for a 72-bed extension never worked. Foreign funds got stuck in the bank and bureaucracy delayed government approval.

Private donations made up for the shortage, though families were asked to look for medication or bring adult diapers, which are now five times more expensive. Nurses looked elsewhere for jobs as salaries couldn’t keep up with inflation.

Suleiman Ali Yousef, an 81-year-old businessman, arrived almost two months ago.

Yousef and his wife contracted the coronavirus together last year. Contrary to everything they have done together over the past 50 years, she died alone. His health was poor and Yousef needed care. His children took him in.

As a self-made man, Yousef survived the treacherous business world with quick wit and good connections. During the civil war he imported cheap goods from Europe.

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His wife managed the savings and they lived well and never needed financial help from the family. He stopped working only two years ago because of a stroke.

Now half of his savings are in the bank. The other half is goods that are stored in a warehouse. He has no social security.

“I’ve never cost the state anything in my life. I worked and paid for everything, ”he said from his bed. “It has to be of service to me. I’m sick.”

He is desperate to find himself alone and in need. “I don’t want to be a young man again. No thanks! But I want to take care of myself. ”

Back at Orfalis’s apartment, Raymond said he couldn’t afford to hire help. He can barely afford his pain medication.

His equally aging wife is his only caregiver. She changes his diapers and reacts to his ringing in the middle of the night from the next room.

“She suffers with me. I don’t want her to suffer, ”he said, crying. “I have nothing. Only God. May he bring me back and relieve me.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in any way without permission.



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