If there’s anything the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light is how societies value senior citizens, the most vulnerable of all to the virus. Global interest in the lives of elders peaked as those with family members in nursing homes grappled with maintaining social distances while still ensuring their loved ones felt seen and heard.
However, when it comes to Armenia, the prevailing perception is that at least its elderly are living at home in the cocoon of their intergenerational families and therefore not subject to the double threat of being both older and over-exposed in a public facility.
There is much truth to this, as there remains an entrenched social stigma in Armenia surrounding putting one’s parents or grandparents in an institutional setting. But for those without the nuclear family safety net—who are impoverished, in declining health, or suffering from cognitive or mobility issues—the state is the last hope to take responsibility for these outlier citizens. This makes a survey of these geriatric facilities all the more important, in hopes of ensuring that no senior is robbed of his or her dignity and the care their waning health may require.
22% of Armenia’s population will be above 65 by 2050 and Armenia’s demographics are considered an aging population.
Today, an estimated 1,400 senior citizens live in nursing homes in Armenia, which houses a total of 11 nursing homes—four state-owned and seven independent. In visiting two of them—one public and one private—we discovered that the somewhat grim mythology surrounding out-of-home elder care did not match the more positive reality. While best practices senior care is still a work in progress in Armenia, the isolation, loneliness and neglect typically ascribed to such settings did not appear to be a dominant issue. Rather, many of the residents who were interviewed and observed seemed to have created surrogate families among fellow residents and aides. Moreover, those in better health still had connections to the outside world and were in contact with relatives.
The further we probed, it became clear the elderly are not necessarily undervalued and overlooked in Armenian society, but rather that the resources are lacking to assure their human rights under international and state law can be fully met. In fact, the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) reports that by 2050, 22% of Armenia’s population will be above 65 and Armenia’s current demographics are considered an aging population. With the elderly most at risk for poverty and the current social security system inadequate to fully provide for the psychological, legal, health, and living accommodations to these at-risk citizens, it is up to the decision-making authorities to actively address today what could become a socio-economic crisis in years to come.
The State-Run Model
The Nork Nursing Home in Yerevan admits seniors for a multiplicity of reasons. The most prevalent is urgent housing needs, as was the case for 88-year old Bavakan Poghosyan. As a result of her psychological trauma and family conflicts, she packed her bags and decided to find refuge in Nork. She recalls her very first moments at the home almost eight years ago. “At first it was very difficult and I wept all day. But now, I am fulfilled,” she remarks, commending Nork management and staff for their exemplary care. Poghosyan is just one of almost 200 residents living at Nork Nursing Home.
Though the many Nork residents have lived rich lives and can recall major moments in the nation’s history, many consider the coronavirus epidemic one of the most notable and heartbreaking. According to the press secretary of the Ministry of Health Sona Martirosyan, there were 17 coronavirus deaths at Nork Nursing home. In all cases, the patients had pre-existing conditions making them more susceptible to the virus. At the time of this publication, Nork is COVID free, a result of extra precautions taken by management and staff.
Seventy-nine-year-old Nyura has resided at Nork for seven years and splits her life into pre and post coronavirus times, forlornly reminiscing previous summers traveling throughout Armenia. “We usually have a busy and active life here. Every year we take trips to different parts of Armenia, like Sevan, Dilijan, Garni, and Geghard. Because of the coronavirus pandemic this year, we’ve had to stay inside these walls,” says Nyura tearfully, as she recalls the friends she lost in just a few weeks. Though the seniors are no longer able to take trips this summer, the staff ensures they are occupied inside the home with board games, access to television, social media, and Skype.
“State-run institutions like ours have event organizers to arrange various artistic events for the seniors, such as visits to the theater, concerts, other cultural centers, and various sports tournaments, says Nork Press Secretary Martirosyan. “All national holidays and birthdays of the seniors are celebrated and there are artistic groups including painting, theater, and literature. Prior to the global pandemic, these performances were debuted outside of Yerevan in Gyumri and Vanadzor.
The seniors are also encouraged to take part in community service. “There have also been some social programs implemented with the participation of our residents. About two New Year’s ago, some of our seniors knitted hats and gloves that were donated to an orphanage,” recounts Arthur Melkonyan, director of Nork Nursing home. “There was also a large international exhibition organized here, which presented paintings by our residents, as well as works by the residents of other nursing homes in France, Great Britain, Georgia, and other countries,” he reports.
“I appreciate the attitude of the employees here,” says 83-year old Ararat, an active member of the Nork theatre group who seems to thrive when performing. “They respect us as if we’re their parents. I feel like I’m the center of attention here, and that’s why I don’t want to leave,” he says, adding that he speaks to his son and daughter every day. “In the era of the Internet, there is no longing anymore. I feel at home here.”