An old radio plays background music as Serra Madrid, 83, makes coffee for a rare visitor to her small but immaculate Caracas apartment, where she lives alone.
Her face emerges upon the arrival of Morella Rossi, a volunteer with the NGO Confit whose projects include caring for the elderly in Venezuela – thousands of whom have been abandoned amid an exodus of young people looking for better lives elsewhere.
“My good girl!” Rossi, 66, greets the older woman with an affectionate hug. “How are you? Are you taking a shower?”
Over coffee and biscuits in the sitting room, Madrid, who walks on a stick, tells the Russian about her life since the last time they met.
She complains of joint pain, but insists she was diligently doing the movement exercises prescribed by the doctor.
“Sometimes it is embarrassing … to contact her because I know that she also has many things to do,” Madrid told AFP about her visitor, whom she described as “light” and “a blessing.”
With tears in her eyes, she said her son immigrated to Costa Rica in 2015, and “for years, he didn’t send me a dime.”
Venezuela suffers from extreme poverty and a political crisis that has prompted more than seven million of its citizens to flee the country in recent years, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
There are often shortages of food, medicine, and essentials like soap and toilet paper.
Many risk life and limb on the long and dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico in an effort to reach the United States.
But most of them – nearly six million – live in other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes as “one of the world’s largest displacement crises”.
Organizations like Convite are doing what they can for those left behind, the elderly on their own with ever-declining purchasing power and a collapsing public health system.
“food for the soul”
According to the NGO, half a million of the country’s five million pensioners live completely alone, abandoned by what it describes as a “precarious” elderly care system. Many depend entirely on help from family members, donations, informal work, or humanitarian assistance.
The South American country’s government launched a social program for the elderly in 2011, but it doesn’t have figures available on what it has accomplished. Convite launched in Caracas two years ago, and hopes to expand to other cities.
“Our mission is not to give them a plate of food, but food for the soul,” said Maria Carolina Borges, a 58-year-old volunteer.
Caregivers like her are trained to help seniors with everyday practical needs, but also to deal with anxiety, sleep problems, loneliness or grief.
Among those accused is Burgess Maria Dolores James, 76, who lives with two of her four children, two dogs and a parrot – but lacks enough money for some basics. Jaimes Borges is one of her daughters.
“Sometimes I feel important because she calls me almost every day,” James explained. “She has organized several gynecological consultations for me, as well as dental appointments.”
Borges, she said, takes care of her “unseen needs”.
By Barbara Agelvis/AFP