“We don’t get any help from doctors – not even a consultation,” says Maria, “but I have to think about my own health, and the health of other loved ones, the ones who are not ill.”
Maria* lives in Belarus, and spent years caring for a relative who had dementia when she felt that the state services had failed her. Her story is typical of people across Eastern Europe, where the infrastructure available to support people as they age is woefully underdeveloped: dementia is severely underdiagnosed, state homecare provision is limited to delivering basic goods to people’s front doors, and private care is beyond the reach of most, given that pensions average £50-80 a month.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn global attention to the difficulties faced by people who care for a loved one at home. In the UK, for instance, the closure of day centres and the reduction of support in the home has left carers burnt out, contributing to a rise in mental health concerns. Many carers are struggling with the sense of isolation that comes from not being able to leave their homes and the lack of respite services for their loved one.
But for people living in Eastern Europe, these difficulties are not new. Many of the people World Jewish Relief supports in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia have been living in de-facto lockdown for years. Residential care options for people with conditions such as dementia are scarce and often consist of admission to a large neuro-psychiatric institution. Instead, they remain at home while their loved ones do their best to support them in difficult conditions. As the younger generation emigrates to countries like Russia, Poland and Romania to seek employment, much of this care unpaid work is taken on by spouses, who are likely to be living with multiple health conditions of their own, on top of caring for their partner. It is common for people to live in cramped and poorly-maintained flats, meaning that carers often live in a single room with the person they care for. These flats are often high up in Soviet-era blocks without a lift, making getting outside challenging even at the best of times.
As well as providing homecare to those who need it most acutely and have nobody else to turn to, World Jewish Relief also offers training, resources and respite to individuals who are caring for a loved one with dementia. When the pandemic hit, it threw into sharp relief the importance of this support, and we needed to redouble our efforts to ensure that family carers had access to this same level of support notwithstanding the changing circumstances.
Throughout the pandemic, I have been immensely proud of the work that World Jewish Relief’s local partners have been doing to support those who are caring for a loved one with dementia or other health conditions, and I have been bowled away by what they have managed to achieve. Our partner in Minsk, Hesed Rakhamim, has set up a schedule of weekly Zoom meetings for community members who are caring for a loved one with dementia, where participants support each other and share ideas for how to cope in challenging circumstances. Meanwhile, Hesed Yehuda in Chisinau, Moldova, has been sending out activity packs to clients with dementia to help them stay engaged and active during their period of isolation.
World Jewish Relief’s partners have proven that in adversity there is opportunity. The needs of carers and of the people they look after are in the limelight globally, now more than ever before. We must use this moment as an opportunity to bring the needs of older people with care needs and their caregivers to the fore. This momentum may be exactly what we need to radically improve the lives of the most vulnerable older people.
* Not her real name