Despite rising need, old-age homes still taboo for most Greek families

«There are people who really don’t have anyone in the world,» said Nikos Soldatos, who runs a rest home for the elderly in Neo Faliron. «Before the residents came here, they would bang their canes on the floor every so often so they wouldn’t feel like they were alone in the house. If we weren’t here, the consequences would be unbelievable.» It’s early in the afternoon at the rest home in Neo Faliron. The TV is on, but few of the elderly residents are watching. Some are talking to one another, a few are reading the newspaper, still others are playing backgammon. «There’s enough material here for 100 novels,» Soldatos commented. «One of the residents here was once a Miss Greece. You can still see how beautiful she is. Yet she is all alone. Or that gentleman over there: He was a secondary school inspector, very well-educated, but he never married. Most people here came after they lost their spouses or when their health started to fail. Their children visit often. But I’ve never seen any grandchildren. They never come.» Greek families are indeed changing, especially regarding care of the elderly. Though data show that placing aging relatives into rest homes remains a taboo option for many families – only 1 percent of elderly Greeks live in such homes, compared to 11 percent in other Western countries – a modern family that includes Grandma and Grandpa living with the kids and grandkids at home is also fading as a tradition. Researchers are paying close attention to this trend because in 20 years at least a quarter of Greeks will be in their golden years. According to the National Statistics Service, people over 65 comprise 17.8 percent of Greece’s population – nearly 2 million people – while in 1971 they made up 11.1 percent. Of the more than 1,970,567 individuals in Greece who are over 65, at least 318,186 of them live on their own, while some 5,000 live in legal, established rest homes around Greece. If you factor in the 300 illegal rest homes in Greece as well as the profiteering rest homes which are more concerned with money than care, the number of elderly people in rest homes triples. So where are the remaining 1.6 million elderly people? Some still live with their spouses or have moved in with their children. In the last few years, a third option has arisen. Children of aging parents who do not want them to move into a rest home but cannot accommodate them in their own home are hiring domestic workers from other countries as live-in help for their parents. This option, however, is too costly for most families. Smaller families «It’s an intractable problem for Greek families and the situation is only going to get worse,» warned sociologist Aphroditi Teperoglou. «Traditionally, younger relatives took care of older relatives. But as the Greek family gets smaller, it gets harder to carry out this tradition. When a couple has only one child, who at some point will leave, will that child live in another city or will he stay in town and run from morning to night taking care of his parents when they get old?» In the old days, she said, caring for aging relatives was divided among the many family members. It helped, too, that women didn’t work and could devote themselves to such care. «Today,» Teperoglou said, «even the grandmothers work.» But this trend doesn’t mean that the Greek family no longer cares for – or takes care of – Grandma and Grandpa. «It has been established that if Greek family members stopped helping each other for one 24-hour period, our economy would collapse,» Teperoglou revealed. «We [as families] no longer choose to live together, but we at least choose to live close to each other. And besides, if the elderly person has grown up being in charge, he wants his peace and quiet. Sometimes, he gives his grown child the house and then he rents a place of his own nearby. But rest homes remain taboo – we have one of the fewest percentages of elderly people in rest homes in the European Union. Good group homes are very expensive and the rest are just asylums. If conditions improve, the elderly themselves will want to go to rest homes. [The adult children] must be helped, too, because they have worked so hard and gotten so tired that they have reached their wits’ end. That’s why the business of live-in domestic workers from Eastern Europe has flourished. These workers fill an enormous need.» Foreign domestic workers care for an increasing number of elderly Greeks in their own homes and at rest homes. Stelios Prosalikas, president of the Panhellenic Union of Rest Homes for the Elderly, puts the number who work in such homes above 10,000. A growing cost Foreign workers in rest homes are in demand essentially because they are paid so little. According to data, the average salary for foreigners working in rest homes is about 600 euros without government health insurance. It costs around 1,000 euros per month for an elderly person to stay in a rest home. «If the cost is lower than that, some kind of deal has been made,» Prosalikas said. But things are more complicated than that. Consider the scenario at the Neo Faliron rest home. Relatives have pitched in to pay the month’s cost – 450 euros – for their elderly relatives. Stella Linitsiou has placed her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, in the Neo Faliron home. «It may not look like the best place from the outside, the building may be old, but the hospitality is exceptional,» Linitsiou said. «Believe me, I know. I had my mother in another place before this and I didn’t dare visit her. That’s how dirty it was, how poor the treatment of residents was.»