BEIRUT – Tiny and curvy with age, Marie Orfali makes the trip five times a week from her Beirut apartment to the local church, a charity and a nearby soup kitchen to look for a meal cooked for her and her husband Raymond, 84 years old.
Their only support – Raymond’s one-time $ 15,000 end-of-service payment when he retired over 20 years ago – ran out a long time ago.
Since then, they have relied on charity to cover almost everything: rent, cleaning supplies, pain relievers, and food for their white dog Snoopy. But charity covers less and less as the Lebanese currency collapses. The money they receive from a benefactor and the church each month, which once amounted to $ 400, is now worth just $ 40.
Marie, 76, broke down in tears when asked how she was. âI got scared, I got nervous,â she said. “I sit and cry and think I want the money. I want to buy things for the house.”
With virtually no national social protection system, the elderly in Lebanon are on their own in the midst of their country’s economic crisis. In their early years, they survived 15 years of civil war that began in 1975 and bouts of instability. Today, in their old age, many have been plunged into poverty by one of the world’s worst financial crises in the past 150 years.
Lebanon has the highest number of elderly people in the Middle East – 10% of the 6 million people are over 65. About 80% of the population over 65 has no pensions or health coverage, according to the United Nations International Labor Organization. Organization.
Family members and charities, traditionally the main source of support, face growing needs as unemployment rises.
All the dollar savings that seniors have accumulated over a working lifetime are locked in banks, inaccessible during the banking crisis. Savings lost almost 90% of their value when the local currency collapsed against the dollar. Imported medicines and basic commodities are under threat, and a once reliable health system is collapsing.
– I have no money to buy clothes or shoes, said Marie, whispering. She didn’t want Raymond to hear her complain. He recently had a COVID-19 infection and brain surgery and is getting restless, and this is only made worse by the lockdowns and the financial crisis.
Raymond worked for 26 years as a nurse’s aide in one of the Beirut hospitals and Marie as a babysitter in a university.
Now they live among piles of their belongings in a rented apartment in east Beirut, trinkets filling the shelves, and images of Jesus and the Holy Family adorning every wall. The black suits Raymond once wore to parties – he was a lively dancer – still hang over his bed. A bag of bread is under the bed for easy access. He moves around the apartment with a walker. Their five children are also in difficulty and cannot help them.
In the past two years, more and more elderly people have taken to the streets, rummaging in the garbage or begging, said Joe Taoutel, who runs Rafiq el-Darb, or Friends until the end, the association charity where Marie takes part of the meals each week.
Taoutel delivers meals to more than 60 elderly families, compared to five before the crisis.
“Those who gave are now in need,” said Taoutel. âIn the beginning, the groups helped their sects. Now the needs have increased and no one can replace the state.
Lebanon is one of 16 countries in the world that do not have a pension plan for workers in the private sector in the event of old age, disability and death, according to the ILO. The national social security program covers only 30% of the working population, mostly making one-time retirement payments, and is dangerously underfunded.
To depilate the wound, a massive explosion in Beirut last summer devastated parts of the city where hundreds of homes of Lebanon’s older Christian population were located, relocating them temporarily or permanently.
The government has struggled to meet the needs of a population of which 55% have now lived below the poverty line since the onset of the crisis at the end of 2019. The World Bank has granted Lebanon a loan of $ 246 million to provide assistance in cash to about 160,000 Lebanese families, but disbursements have been delayed. The financial institution said it did not have data on the number of seniors living below the poverty line.
As the economy falters, more and more young Lebanese are migrating, leaving aging parents behind.
The UN estimates that by 2030, people over 65 could represent more than 15% of the Lebanese population, a trend that could accelerate with the brain drain and the deterioration of the health system.
âThe elderly and the disabled stay. If society is not aware of this problem, I think we are heading for more crises, âsaid Mustafa Helweh, head of the Medical Association of Social Services, a rehabilitation hospital and nursing home in Tripoli, in the north of Lebanon.
Thousands of foreign domestic workers – the backbone of the elderly care system – left as dollars were scarce. The overwhelmed health system is no longer seen as reliable.
At the height of the pandemic, nursing homes were considered a high risk around the world. In Lebanon, some families saw the answer.
The 104-year-old Helweh facility can accommodate up to 300 people, a mix of the elderly, the mentally ill and the disabled. He halted admissions and visits at the start of the pandemic.
When it reopened six months later, 42 new patients were admitted, an unexpected rush. With the depreciation of the currency, a private room now costs only the equivalent of about $ 100 per month. The facility is redeveloping part of the basement for more bedrooms, but a plan for a 72-bed annex never took off. Foreign funds were stuck in the bank and the bureaucracy delayed government approval.
Private donations made up for the shortages, though families were urged to look for shortage drugs or bring in adult diapers, now five times more expensive. Nurses looked for jobs elsewhere because wages could not keep up with inflation.
Suleiman Ali Yousef, an 81-year-old trader, arrived almost two months ago.
Yousef and his wife contracted the coronavirus together last year. Unlike anything they’ve done together over the past 50 years, she passed away on her own. With his fragile health, Yousef needed care. His children admitted it.
Self-taught, Yousef said he survived the treacherous business world with a quick wit and good connections. He imported cheap goods from Europe during the Civil War.
His wife managed the savings and they lived well, never needing financial help from the family. He only stopped working because of a stroke two years ago.
Today, half of his savings are blocked in the bank. The other half is made up of goods stored in a warehouse. He has no social insurance.
âI have never cost the state anything in my life. I worked and paid for everything, âhe said from his bed. âHe has to offer me a favor. I am sick.”
He despairs of finding himself alone and in need. âI don’t want to be a young man again. No thanks! But I want to take care of myself.
Returning to the Orfalis’ apartment, Raymond said he couldn’t afford to hire help. He can barely afford his pain medication.
His equally elderly wife is his only caregiver. She changes her diapers and responds to her bell sounds in the middle of the night from the next room.
âShe suffers with me. I don’t want her in pain, he said, crying. “I have nothing. Just God. Let him take me back and relieve me.
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