31 March 2016
Sister Monica, a native of Poland who staffs the Harmony Day Center, checks Ivlita Kuchaidze’s blood pressure. (photo: Molly Corso)
In the Spring 2016 edition of ONE, photojournalist Molly Corso profiled a World War II survivor now spending her days at a Tbilisi facility for the elderly. Here, she introduces us to some others at the facility.
I was raised in a close-knit Italian family, where the median age skewed closer to 60 than 16, so walking into Caritas Georgia’s Harmony Center always feels a bit like going home.
Women like Ivlita Kuchaidze, with her quick wit and self-deprecating humor, remind me of my grandma and her sisters.
But there, really, the comparison ends. My grandma and her sisters, after years of hard work, enjoyed a quiet and secure retirement. Ivlita, and the 35 other senior citizens who spend their days at the Harmony Center, have not been so lucky.
Whole generations of Georgians were robbed of the peaceful old age they had planned when the savings they worked for their entire lives evaporated, along with the Soviet Union, 25 years ago.
Now, in their 80s and 90s, they lack the means to heat the rooms they live in and to purchase the medication they need. Instead, they depend on a mixture of charity and their small government pensions (about $66 a month) to survive.
They dress in the clothes that are donated to Caritas Harmony Center, eat the meals provided at Caritas’ soup kitchen, depend on the warm showers and free medication they can receive at the day center.
In a word, their lives are difficult — a far cry from the old age they planned when they were working as doctors, architects, scientists, nurses, and cultural attaches.
An example: Azmat, a 90-year-old regular at the center, rides the bus to the center, using her cane to navigate the broken pavement.
A former chemist and inventor, she helped create clothing and shoe factories and traveled extensively during her career at a ministry in the former Soviet Union.
Now, she applies her inventor’s mind to survive the challenges of poverty: when she found she needed a cane — expensive at $12 — she redesigned a plastic broom handle to make a walking stick.
Or Ivlita, a former surgical nurse, who lost the little government assistance she used to receive because she was given an electric heater. She lives, with her daughter, in a single room without any heat. To stay warm, she said, she dresses like a “cabbage”: layers and layers of clothing, even in bed.
But instead of complaining about their fate, Azmat, Ivlita and the other guests at Caritas Harmony Center seem determined to get the most out of every afternoon.
On holidays, they play the piano, read their own poetry and dance.
On slow days, they gossip over their tea and cookies, comparing strategies for dealing with the complicated bureaucracy that doles out the little assistance they receive from the government.
They devour magazines and solve crossword puzzles in the library, play chess in the sitting room.
To pass the hours, they share stories from their past — and trade advice on how to stay warm after the center closes for the day.
A favorite tip is to drink one’s tea while still bundled up in coat and hat, so all that captured warmth stays with them for a little bit longer.
Read more about Georgia’s elderly in A Survivor Speaks in ONE magazine. In the brief video below, Molly Corso narrates a look at life at the Harmony Center.