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 December 20, 2002 

Ageless Care: Young volunteers help elderly refugees

Katarina Vardanyan is head of the Youth Department of ARCSKatarina entered an office room and saw Emma crying. She asked what had happened and found out that Emma's grandfather had died. Katarina was persuading Emma to go home, but she didn't want to. About 30 minutes later Katarina realized from the conversation that it was not Emma's grandfather who died, but an elderly refugee whom Emma had been caring for.

Like about 60 others, Emma is a volunteer in the Youth Department of the Armenian Red Cross, in a special program called "Social and Psychological Service for the Refugee Elderly". The project's goal is to console lonely refugee old people, who live in hard social conditions. The young volunteers make them forget their losses, help them to integrate into society and communicate with its members.

About 330 elderly are visited by 60 volunteers (30 in Yerevan and 30 in different regions of Armenia). The project started three years ago with 20 volunteers taking care of 120 elderly, mainly refugees from Baku living in Yerevan hostels.

Lusic remembers her visit to Victory Park"The idea was born in the Youth Department," says the head of the Youth Department of Armenian Red Cross Society (ARCS) Katarina Vardanyan. "We had social nurses who were visiting old people and helping them. And when the project was over we had a whole voluntary army. And the idea was born to create a similar project with the help of volunteers."

The Red Cross Department of Population Movement offer special care for the elderly refugees. The idea was originally met with skepticism by those who thought a volunteer couldn't do the work of a specialist.

But during the volunteer program's first year, representatives from the Emigration Department of the US Government visited Armenia twice, talking to volunteers and refugees. As a result, the following year the project was expanded.

The structure of the program is that old people are visited once or twice a week. During the time of visits young volunteers are talking to them, finding out their problems, and listening to the life stories of those who soon become dear to them.

Kristina and Asya with a table full of memoriesRigaleta is one of those.

"In Baku I was working in a circus," the old woman recalls. "My chiefs wanted to take me to Moscow but my mother didn't allow me to go. I got married when I was 19."

And following the loss of her husband, a military man, doctors advised Rigaleta to stay in touch with people, to not draw within herself with her sorrow.

So each week she eagerly waits for a visit from her "grandchild" Margarita, one of the volunteers.

"I fell in love with Margarita," she says, "I always wait for her visit to talk to her for at least 5-10 minutes. These days it is the only happy minutes of my life for me. I'm alone now. I can go nowhere as I have no friends and I don't know anybody."

Like Rigaleta waits for Margarita, another of the elderly, Natasha, waits for Kristine.

In her room she has a few photographs with family, but others with her volunteer grandchild.

Kristine says that they have already become something like relatives. She visits Natasha more than her real grandmother.

"When she knew that I got engaged she said she wanted to give a present," Kristine says. "I took my skirt to her and she together with her friend Asya made some changes on it. When I visited her again they dressed me, then told me to stand between them and then started to examine me. They started to give me different advices like how I must treat my future mother-in-law. Very often I tell my secrets only to them."

Rigaleta treats Margarita like a grandchildAs part of the program, once every month or two volunteers organize visits to different sights, taking the elderly to concerts, cinemas and theatres.

One of the old women, Lusic, remembers very well her visit to Victory Park.

"That was so great," she says, "we saw everything, I was crazy for that monument. I have never been in a place like that during whole my life. I was telling I wish I slept and stay there. Nakhichevan was a small city and I didn't see places like that there."

Volunteers celebrate their grandparents' birthdays with small gifts, having learned over the years what each prefers.

Volunteer Emma says that sometimes it happened when some stage of the project was over but all the volunteers continued to visit their old people.

"We became relatives. Once a month I visit them," she says, "you already know enough things about them, it looks like you lived through something with them."

Emma felt the project's influence even on her. "Now I understand my own grandmothers and grandfathers better than before," she says.

Anna Martirosyan is a coordinator of the psychological service in the Post-traumatic Recovery Center. Starting this year she is a member of the project as a psychologist.

Tea time for volunteer and her elderly friends"I was very surprised," she says, "when I see how 19-21 year old young volunteers managed to do such a difficult work, which can be done only by specialists. They are old people, whose age is more than 70, who lived through grief and they have been bearing their grief through years and lived with that. They need to be treated in psychological centers. And these young people managed to help them without hurting them. They have lived with them as one family for thee to four years. Volunteers were taking from their home different things, clothes and food to those old people and in their turn those old people were happy with their grandchildren's successes and tried to help them with any useful advice and treat them with candies or soup."

The project is scheduled to conclude at the end of this month, as funding has run out. However, Anna Martirosyan says if the volunteers stop visiting the elderly, it will cause damage to the old people.

"For three years those people were treated like human beings and now if they are back again in their previous state that will be very difficult for them," she says.

But the volunteers say that their visits will continue, although not as frequently without the assistance of the Red Cross program.

Both Katarina Vardanyan and Anna Martirosyan believe that they will find donors who will finance the project and it won't be finished.

One of the old women said: "If they leave us then we will become complete orphans."


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