Sending your mother or father to retirement home was once unthinkable for most Syrians, but almost six years of war and displacement have left many with no other choice.
Ashiti, 85, is one of the 140 elderly Syrians being cared for at Dar al-Saada (Home of Happiness) – one of the capital’s biggest homes for old people.
Residents at Dar al-Saada pay a monthly fee of $120 for meals, care and a bed in a room with two other people, equipped with a television, a small table and an electric heater.Metal railings are mounted on the walls for support, and there are lifts so the elderly can skip the stairs. Of the complex’s four floors, one is reserved for residents who cannot afford to pay for their accommodation.
The home was already nearing capacity before war broke out in Syria in 2011, but would only receive requests for a bed there once or twice a month. But since the eruption of Syria’s war — which has displaced millions and killed at least 310,000 — elderly Syrians without families are flocking to Dar al-Saada.
“I came here because my house was destroyed and my children were each displaced to a different country,” says Ashtini, a member of a well-off family that owned land near the capital. Her three daughters now live in Jordan, Germany, and Iraqi Kurdistan, but Ashiti stayed in Damascus after she was forced to flee the rebel-held town of Douma under government siege since 2012.
New requests come in daily, says 82-year-old general manager Lamis al-Haffar, who helped found the charity that runs the home 25 years ago.”Because of the problems in Syria, many young people were forced to flee and leave their parents, who stayed on their own and weren’t able to provide for themselves,” Haffar says.
Out of seven old people’s homes in Damascus, three are private and four are government-run.
“Every time there is a new empty bed I feel sad and happy at the same time — I know someone has died and left us, but I’m happy because that bed will be a refuge for someone in a tough place, who hasn’t found anywhere to sleep,” says Haffar. “Getting a bed here has become a final dream for many old people in that situation.”
Almost every one of the 300 older refugees in HelpAge’s report Older voices in humanitarian crises said they had not been consulted about their needs, more than two-thirds said they did not have enough information about the humanitarian assistance available to them, almost half said health services did not provide care for their age-related conditions and close to half said they felt anxious, hopeless or depressed most or all of the time.
Older people are disproportionately affected when disaster strikes. Among the victims of Hurricane Katrina, 75% of those who died were over 60, despite making up only 16% of the population. Similarly in the 2011 Japanese tsunami, 56% of the victims were 65 and over, despite making up 23% of the population.
Stories like these are important, not only do they remind us how fortunate we are, but they also provide learning opportunities for when disaster strikes, man-made or otherwise. Older people are often forgotten at these times, but it is essential that they are not.
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