In its latest report, the World Bank has estimated that Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis may rank among the world’s worst since the mid-19th century. This sudden and rapid collapse, normally associated with countries in the midst of conflict or war, has impacted all aspects of daily life and is particularly affecting pensioners.
In Lebanon, there is no social protection for the elderly, as retirement is based almost entirely on a capitalization system whereby retirees are dependent on their own individual savings. The meager end-of-service allowances they receive after years of work quickly lost value in the face of disastrous inflation and a year-on-year consumer price index of 144.1 percent.
Many elderly people have been unable to meet their basic needs and are forced to work despite challenging physical conditions.
As a result, many elderly people have been unable to meet their basic needs and are forced to work despite challenging physical conditions. Nadia Chidiac, a pensioner from the neighborhood of Geitaoui, which was partially destroyed in the Beirut port blast, described the hard living conditions in which she finds herself.
“After the explosion, I got older. I don’t have access to water and electricity as easily as before. I am always on the streets looking for medicine and food. At my age, I can’t make so much effort. Daily life has become really difficult here and it’s all about poverty and suffering.”
Chidiac is not the only one to describe the hardships the elderly population continues to face after the port devastation. In a press statement, the global NGO network HelpAge International said “older people face enormous challenges to recover from the psychological, health, and economic impacts of the Beirut blast at a time when COVID-19 is on the rise in Lebanon.”
In the absence of sustainable state support, several initiatives have been set up to address the needs of the elderly in Lebanon. The local nonprofit Teta w Jeddo helps the elderly with rent and utility payments as well as food distribution, while Ajialouna provides them with health insurance and medical care across the country.
More recently, following the port disaster, the NGO Nation Station was created in the blast-affected area. Johnny Yaacoub, 27-year-old volunteer coordinator and floor manager at Nation Station spoke to Inside Arabia, describing the emergence of the initiative.
“Nation Station began on the second day after the blast when a few people gathered to help the residents of the Geitaoui neighborhood, located 1.5 km (about one mile) from the blast. The area is mainly made up of elderly people, old couples, and people who have no family, or no one to help them.”
Nation Station has thus become a space that creates social links and meets the many needs of the population. While most elderly people used to depend on family support, the financial and economic crisis has made this support much more difficult.
“Most of the needs of the elderly began with food. Kitchens and houses have been destroyed, and they lack family support to rebuild them.”
“Most of the needs of the elderly began with food. Kitchens and houses have been destroyed, and they lack family support to rebuild them. Their children, who used to look after them and bring them food, are now unable to cover their own family expenses due to the lack of money. The government did help people a bit by giving them a few million Lebanese pounds. But the fact is that the expenses are much higher than that.”
It should also be noted that the economic and financial crisis has caused a large part of the population to leave, further isolating the elderly who remain in Lebanon. Yaacoub describes how “sometimes the elderly just want to make a phone call with us or share a cup of coffee. Many people live alone because their children live abroad.”
This issue of isolation is now compounded by the lack of medication and the brain drain of several thousand doctors. The World Health Organization’s director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, expressed concern that Lebanon’s rapidly deteriorating health system could potentially impact the lives of thousands of people. Chidiac also explained to Inside Arabia the distress she faced after the Port of Beirut catastrophe.
“After the explosion, I had an accident, I lost part of my memory and had a lot of hearing problems. Even today, I have not had access to much care. I have an only daughter who has many health problems, as well as epilepsy. I can’t have her treated. She can’t go to the doctor because life has become too expensive. After God, I have no one, I am alone.”
The goal of many NGOs is to not only help older people in their daily lives but also empower them. Yaacoub marvels at how many elderly citizens have the enthusiasm, courage, and willingness to invest in skills, learn something new, and attend workshops.
Many elderly citizens have the enthusiasm, courage, and willingness to invest in skills, learn something new, and attend workshops.
“We don’t want people to be dependent on us all the time. We want there to be an exchange and empowerment of people. We ask people what their skills are, and how they can help us. Since Nation Station started, we have created over 60 short and long-term jobs. We try to include every member, whatever their age, whatever their ability to contribute to the community.”
This is the case of Victoria Antoun Assaf, a pensioner who used to work for the banking sector in Lebanon and now benefits from the various Nation Station subsidies. Working in the private sector, the savings that she kept over the years are no longer worth much with inflation. Today, being largely dependent on NGO aid, she wants to make herself useful in her community.
“I am willing to help with cooking, cutting and washing vegetables, and distributing food. I like to give back what I receive and help others in need. Moreover, working in the kitchen allows me to get to know new people.”
Nevertheless, the challenges remain great and the future very uncertain. Lebanon has the largest number of elderly people in the Middle East with ten percent of the population of six million being over 65. By 2030, the UN estimates that those above 65 may make up more than 15 percent of Lebanon’s population.
In the context of a financially and economically failing state, and the lack of concrete measures to counteract the effects of an aging population, the situation could become even more precarious for older Lebanese.