When Luis Francisco Cabezas explains the context in which the elderly lived before coronavirus arrived, he lists the many elements that have affected their living conditions. Politically speaking, there’s never been an organized system to protect older people in Venezuela, always tagged as a young country; but since the humanitarian emergency began, migration, lack of cash, the drop of the value of pensions, little access to public health, and the intermittence of basic services have made the elderly considerably more vulnerable, facing all these hurdles by themselves. Today, Cabezas is the chairman of Convite, an organization that defends the rights of senior citizens and has been following up on their living conditions since 2006. Cabezas’s work has focused on registering information, complaints, and establishing contact networks and humanitarian aid (medicine, food, personal hygiene products) throughout ten Venezuelan states.
In November 2019, the report put together by Convite and HelpAge already painted the picture on what the situation was for the elderly: three out of five seniors would go to bed hungry frequently, one out of ten would go to bed hungry every night, and 23% of the 1,200 interviewed senior citizens lived on their own. “This year we saw an increase of older people who would eat only two meals a day, who don’t have access to medicine, depend on the CLAP box for food, although 60% say they don’t receive it regularly. To start off, it’s a very precarious way to live.”
In this context, the arrival of the coronavirus is an additional problem which has turned this group of people into an even more fragile entity. “If we look at the number of deceased in Venezuela on a daily basis, almost 60% are people over the age of 60,” Cabezas says, “the previous emergency exposed them to a lifestyle in dire conditions for a prolonged period of time, and the coronavirus accelerated their death.”
There’s a big difference in the living conditions of senior citizens between the reports of 2019 and 2020, especially when it comes to access to food and basic services. Which differences stand out to you?
The main difference is that the elderly are more dependent on third parties, because their autonomy has lessened with time. Now, a lot of senior citizens let you know that they wouldn’t be able to survive without the help of a third person. At some point, their pension was enough to cover 95% of the bare necessities, so this group of people have seen a fast deterioration process. On the other hand, it’s also a generalized decline. Elders in the more popular areas have always lived hand to mouth, and that has driven them to create solidarity and coexistence mechanisms. But in the middle class, they’ve had to face the same destruction process in their lifestyle, with the difference that they had never needed to build those support networks. This has an important impact on self-esteem, and we see many cases where their mental health has severely declined.
Now, a lot of senior citizens let you know that they wouldn’t be able to survive without the help of a third person.
How do the quarantine measures affect the mental health of senior citizens in Venezuela?
In the victims report of 2019 we saw an important increase in suicides among older people, which was worrying because it highlights the limited access there is to medication and pharmaceuticals. We see a lot of anxiety cases which are boosted by loneliness. With the pandemic, two more elements are added to the equation: confinement and ageism, a process in which stereotypes are created and systematic discrimination takes place against people just because they’re old. With prolonged confinement you also have to include the possibility of domestic abuse, in which women, children, and the elderly usually get the short end of the stick. Stigmatization is also present in many of the measures taken in a discriminatory way against older people.
In regards to these government measures, which are considered discriminatory and stigmatize senior citizens, how can we establish a way of speaking about them in which we acknowledge their vulnerability but don’t victimize them in the process?
There’s no question that this group of people carry a higher risk potential than the rest of the population. But we’re all vulnerable when it comes to COVID-19 and the same prevention measures apply to all the population: facemasks, social distancing, and washing hands. But, for example, the Cumanacoa mayor made a public announcement that any establishment that sold products to people over the age of 60 would be fined, an absolutely discriminatory policy. You can’t just take away people’s lives; you have to offer information, protective services, and domestic support. A lot of older people work, for instance, and limiting their commute can result in them losing their jobs. To generalize measures against the elderly can’t be that simple either, because there are many types of senior citizens. It’s a diverse group, in which many people are still active in many ways. Although these measures are shielded behind their necessity, the goal is to protect others, the cons outweigh the pros. The messages and speeches given out by the government during the pandemic need a lot of work, because they’ve had a very derogatory tone.
The report shows that 37% has internet access and 83% has a cell phone. Which are their main communication and information pathways during the pandemic?
Cell phone services for the most part. Most of them have WhatsApp and they get information through that channel, which means that they don’t always have access to verified information. They’re also not frequent users of media like Twitter or Facebook. We’ve noticed that older people tend to have access to false or manipulated information, which can cause high levels of anxiety.
Two more elements are added to the equation: confinement and ageism, a process in which stereotypes are created and systematic discrimination takes place against people just because they’re old.
While 44% of senior citizens report that their health has declined, 59% say that they haven’t gone to a health facility this year. Now the pandemic has generated a new fear culture to reach out for medical help. How are they affected by this and their access to the health care system?
At the moment, the main fear the elderly have is catching the virus. This fear is related to the stigma and discriminatory speech we were talking about earlier. There’s a lot of fear when it comes to looking for medical attention, especially because of the sort of sensation of a witch-hunt against the infected that has been generated, and the situation concerning the shelters. This is a problem because they decide to look for the attention they need when it’s too late.
Convite does community work across ten states, each one with different quarantine measures and levels of fuel shortages. How has the work with these communities changed?
We had to rethink the way we did everything. From the beginning we focused on not exposing our team to the people we tend to; understanding that there are some who depend exclusively on the service we provide. We trained the team on the importance of social distancing. Outside of Caracas we did have to take into account fuel shortages. In Barquisimeto (Lara State, eastern Venezuela) where we do work, we started Bici Care, a volunteer support program to deliver medicines to those with reduced mobility. We also designed a project to help 85 nursing homes in Distrito Capital, Miranda, and Lara states with biosafety equipment. We also expanded the time schedule to hand out medicine in Barlovento, Miranda, and we started a training program along with HelpAge to create community outreach programs in the Baruta, Chacao, Sucre and Libertador municipalities (all in Caracas), and the Páez municipality (Miranda State). Each municipality will have 10 community handlers, 2 chiropractors, 2 social workers, and a group leader. With this team we will gather information about senior citizens and identify cases which are particularly vulnerable in order to help them with supplies, personal hygiene products, and medicine. We’re also thinking about creating a tool which will allow us to help them financially so they can buy food.
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