By Marianna Grigoryan
Two tragedies occurred February 7 in the Shengavit, District of the Armenian capital Yerevan: a 67-year-old woman hanged herself; and a 62-year-old woman threw herself from the sixth floor of a building. These cases highlight a disturbing trend in Armenia, where the number of suicides and suicide attempts among the elderly is reaching alarming heights.
Some observers attribute the trend — at least in part — to Armenia’s economic doldrums. Overall, the Armenian Statistical Service reports an increase of nearly 30 percent in the number of suicides and suicide attempts in 2011 (647 incidents) compared to numbers in 2009, the year Armenia’s economy shrank by more than 14 percent.
Unemployed Armenians, between the ages of 30 and 65, account for the bulk of these incidents — some 56.7 percent, said Karine Kuyumjian, head of the Service’s Census and Demography Department.
But it is those over the age of 65 years old — 23.1 percent of the total suicides and suicide attempts — who have attracted the most attention.
“The number of suicides has grown significantly,” commented psychologist Ruben Poghosian, a chief specialist at Yerevan’s AYG Center for Psychological Services. “People’s hopes for the future are broken, life gets more and more expensive, and pensioners feel they are ignored. They cannot afford their basic needs, [so their] panic is growing, an inner struggle emerges, and sometimes they cannot overcome it.”
Like elsewhere in the Caucasus, Armenians consider the care for elderly relatives as an obligation; violating that obligation brings dishonor to the family, and shows disrespect to the relative. The Western tendency of elderly people living independently from relatives is generally viewed as an alien concept. But now, many families simply can no longer afford to look after elderly family members. Unemployment is at 6 percent, officially, but unofficial estimates run well into the double-digits. The two women who killed themselves on February 7 were not living with relatives.
For some elderly Armenians, the ability of younger generations to provide support can be a matter of life or death. One 68-year-old pensioner who lives with her son’s family in a Yerevan suburb explained the situation: “pensioners living alone cannot survive without relatives; they cannot afford buying food or medicine,” said the pensioner, who asked not to be named. “This becomes a dead-end for many people.”
Pollster Aharon Adibekian, director of the Sociometer center, said that data from recent surveys suggests a sense of despair is growing among the elderly. “Extreme poverty has increased, and the elderly, the pensioners, have become part of the most vulnerable [population] group. They are sick, they have nobody to care for them, they are tired of everything,” Adibekian said. “They don’t feel a use for themselves in society.”
Armenia’s high rate of labor migration – reportedly 41,000 people in 2011, according to government data – may contribute to the suicide phenomenon, given that it strains family ties, said Poghosian. Many male migrants, in fact, never, or only sporadically return home; leaving relatives to cope on their own, aside from sending cash remittances.
Anahit Gevorgian, a specialist working in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs on social welfare policy for the elderly, concedes that “life for elderly people is not easy at all,” but maintains that the government is doing its best to help pensioners. In January, the government slightly increased the monthly pension for half a million pensioners from 28,700 drams (about $75) to 31,300 drams or about $82. The minimum pension increased by roughly a quarter to 13,000 drams or about $34. The government also runs four homes that provide various forms of assistance to the elderly, and some 30 charity canteens for the poor throughout the country.
But with steadily increasing inflation, the increase in pensions went unnoticed for many pensioners. Food prices rose by 6.1 percent in 2011; costs for other items leaped by 4.3 percent, according to official data. “I would gladly see our officials live on this pension for at least one month,” commented the Yerevan pensioner. “It doesn’t even cover the utilities bills in winter.”
Prospects for additional assistance seem dim. In 2011, Forbes magazine ranked Armenia as the world’s second-worst economy, just after Madagascar.
The opposition Heritage Party has called for hearings on the issue, a proposal the Republican Party of Armenia, the kingmaker in Armenia’s governing coalition, says it supports, along with an “in-depth study” of the problem. “The situation really causes concern, and we should not wait for anything,” said Heritage Party parliamentary faction leader Stepan Safarian.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.