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Caring for Georgia’s New Orphans

Seniors find companions, friends and dignity

text and photographs by Molly Corso

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For Nona Iashvili, even making tea is a daunting task. With her hands maneuvering her walker, every step taken by the 77-year-old must be carefully choreographed: one hand on the kettle, one to balance; switch hands to turn on the small electric hot plate; switch hands to get the cup.

Mobility is not her only challenge. Her apartment in downtown Tbilisi has neither running hot water nor heat. She shares a bathroom with her neighbors in the common yard. The former music teacher lives alone, on the brink of abject poverty.

But at the Harmony Center in Tbilisi, Ms. Iashvili does not have to worry about how she will make tea or stay warm. Here, she can sit, relax and talk with friends. “Here, it is warm,” she says, settling down in a comfortable chair near the piano in the center’s television room.

“Here, by any definition, things are good.”

Ms. Iashvili is one of 37 senior citizens who spend their weekdays at the Harmony Center, an institution of Caritas Georgia, the social service agency of the Catholic community in Georgia. Since opening its doors seven years ago, the center has provided shower facilities, basic medical care, physical therapy, concerts and a score of other activities for seniors in need.

They come in the morning and stay until early evening. They may cross the courtyard and eat lunch at the dining hall, and return for tea and sandwiches or cookies while they watch television, talk with friends, sew or read.

A native of Poland, Sister Monica of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth is on hand to perform checkups and to ensure everyone is current on their medicine. The center organizes weekly events, such as lectures and musical performances, and a doctor visits once a week to address ailments or other concerns.

Most of those pensioners who utilize the center live alone and below the poverty line. Harmony, Ms. Iashvili says, provides them with a place to spend the day in warmth and comfort.

Along with Caritas Georgia’s health clinic and home care program, the Harmony Center is a small source of solace for seniors in the former Soviet republic who grapple with a state pension — 150 Georgian lari (roughly $86) monthly — that cannot keep up with the cost increases for such necessities as medicine, food and heat.

Olya Gardava, a pensioner who regularly comes to the center, says she spent 70 lari — nearly half of her retirement income — just to keep a single electric heater running. The cost, she says, makes it simply too expensive to stay warm at home. Likewise, the uptick in the cost of medication means even the treatment of the most basic of colds can deny the pensioner enough food to eat.

Gaioz Kubaneishvili, Caritas Georgia’s social and medical program manager, says that despite new government programs to provide seniors with health care benefits and vouchers for electricity in the winter, old age is becoming more difficult in Georgia.

“We don’t have good statistics, but according to our observations, there are people for whom food insecurity is very high,” he says, noting that pensioners also receive less food aid from international agencies than they did just five years ago.

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