‘It’s better to die’: the struggle to survive poverty in Armenia | Nick Danziger

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Abandoned and isolated, thousands of elderly people in the former Soviet republic suffer a life of great hardship

Political upheaval, poverty and an exodus of young people to Russia to find work have taken their toll on the former Soviet Republic of Armenia, and in particular on its elderly people. Thousands of over 75s struggle to survive, coping in temperatures of -30C in winter and unable to afford medicine or sufficient food on their meagre pensions.

In early 2017 I was commissioned by the Swiss, Monaco and Armenian Red Cross societies to bring awareness of the plight of the elderly in Armenia and to focus on a pilot project which was being put in place to try and help them.

I was no stranger to Armenia having travelled there several times on assignments to cities and rural areas in the north of the country. Yet I had only an inkling of the hardships faced by older people through Hasmik, an elderly woman, whom I always found huddled in her barrack-like single room in all her clothes to keep the cold from her bones. Her room had no running water, a toilet or heating. Her pitiful pension paid for the electricity to heat a clothes iron, which she used to keep her bed warm by placing it between the bedclothes. She couldnt afford firewood for the stove or even enough food she purchased day-old, discounted bread from the local bakery.

As I discovered, its a problem on a massive scale. In the city of Vanadzor, for example, there are more than 20,000 elderly people in a population of 68,000. Many have been left to fend for themselves. With tiny pensions, even finding the money to pay for basic necessities such as food and heating is a struggle. I hoped the photographs I took of those I met would raise awareness of their plight.

I first visited older people in Vanadzor and Gyumri in 2017, and returned early this year, to see how their hardships had been reduced by the intervention of nurses, home helpers and volunteers from local branches of the Red Cross.

Bavakan Avestiyan, 80, and Razmik Avetisyan, 83


Bavakan lives with her husband in a one-bedroom home in the centre of Gyumri. She broke her leg in a car accident three years before our visit. Since then she has been bedridden, and has not left her home. She now also has Parkinsons.


I was a rich woman, I used to help everybody. Now I am in this condition. As she says this she starts to cry, Its better I die. She spent her working life in a textile factory, which has brought her a pension of 35,000 drams (55) a month. In winter this mostly goes on heating. My main problem is financial, she says. I love sweets, but its now a luxury.

Until the nurses started their regular visits, Razmik was his wifes only carer. He lovingly tells the nurses, I now cook for my wife. He cooks what I tell him to! Bavakan replies.

Strapped for cash, Razmik spends his mornings making tea and coffee in the bazaar, averaging 1,000 drams (1.60) a day. He says that despite his money worries, its been a help since the nurses started coming to care for his wife. Were very happy with their work and we have a good laugh together.

Larisa Khachatryan, 75


Larisa lives on the fourth floor of a dilapidated Soviet-era housing block. In addition to being bedridden with a broken leg and bedsores, she has asthma. Unable to move around her apartment, Larisa has had her bed put in the kitchen. She lives alone and receives a daily visit from her 82-year-old sister, who does not stay with her as she finds the apartment too cold. There is no electricity, no heating and no running water. The bedpan that the Red Cross nurses remove needs to be taken to a neighbours apartment where the toilet functions.

When her sister comes, she lights the candle on the chair next to Larisas bed. Larisa would like to use it more of the time, but she worries that if it gets knocked over in the night, she wont be able to reach it to prevent the wooden floor from catching fire. Like several of the elderly people I visit, she has a son living in Russia who does not provide for her.

Galya Petrosyan, 74


The smell of gas lingers in Galyas one-room apartment in Vanadzor, the result of a leak the previous day. She tells Gohar, the Armenian Red Cross nurse, If [the neighbour] hadnt come, I could be dead. I didnt smell anything. Galya, who is now unable to descend the five floors to street level, shuffles across her world which now consists of her living room, where her bed is tucked into one corner, and the kitchen.

Galya survives on the kindness of her neighbours. The previous day another neighbour had brought her some meat, but Galya no longer has the strength to cook, so she did not eat the whole day. She is no stranger to adversity back in 1988 she was forced to flee Baku with her children during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. They have since died; she has outlived the only family she had.

Her pain is written in her face. She has swelling in both her feet and ankles as well as in one hand, but a proper diagnosis is beyond her means both financially and physically, as she cannot make her way to the nearest clinic. As Gohar sets about cooking an omelette for Galya she smiles. I am getting used to her visits, I miss her when she isnt here. Without her I would now be dead. One year later, Galya has been able to access one of the rare places in a retirement home through a relative among the Armenian diaspora.

Gevorg Danielyan, 82


Gevorg suffers from diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and arthritis. He has to take his medication every day, but by the end of the month the pills have run out and hes unable to afford to purchase them until his pension is paid. This leaves him with a high risk of life-threatening conditions such as a heart attack or a stroke.

Gevorgs children have abandoned him as he once wanted to remarry. His only visitor is an elderly neighbour. We sit next to the stove and reminisce about the good old times. I was very rich in the past. I worked as a storekeeper and even had access to luxuries from the Czech Republic that people hadnt heard of. Now I cannot keep my room warm. I either sit by the stove or stay in bed to keep warm.


He opens his wallet. All I have left for the rest of the month is 220 drams just enough to buy bread. I cant afford the monthly 10,000 drams for the digital TV box so I read to pass the time. In winter, Gevorg spends much of his day trawling the streets for cardboard, bringing it home, tearing it up to stoke the wood burning stove. In the summer months Gevorg sells baubles necklaces and bracelets near the local church, earning on average 500 drams (80p) a day.

I visit Gevorg in 2018, with Gayane and Armine, the two Red Cross nurses. When they enter Gevorgs small one-room home, even their reassuring words cant stem the tide of tears. Through the local branch of the Red Cross, Gevorg is now provided with the medication he requires, his clothes and bed linen are taken away for washing and the nurses and home helpers make sure he has enough firewood to stay warm. Like all the elderly people I visited, he is grateful for the support in food, clothing and medication, but what is most appreciated are the twice-weekly visits from the nurses and home helpers. It saves him from the total isolation that many bear. In Gevorgs case, his elderly neighbour died between my two trips and now his only visitors are Red Cross workers.

Asya Sargsyan, 89


Most of Vanadzors citizens, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, spent their working lives in one of the towns chemical or textiles factories. Asya spent decades in both, first in a chemical factory, then in a textile factory. Unlike many of the elderly people that Gohar and Narine visit, Asya has a son who endeavours to take care of her. Two years previously, after a stroke, the doctors thought she wouldnt have long to live. When I visited her in 2017 she was bedridden and unable to move without help. She says she has given up the will to live.

Narine, who has only recently begun to work with elderly patients, often finds it challenging. The hardest part is to understand their psychological state. Theyre often different from an adult. With some you have to treat them like children. You have to be patient.

I was worried that several of the elderly people I photographed wouldnt survive another winter. Asya died several months after I took her picture.

Hranush Sargsyan, 81


Hranush has been living in barrack-like temporary accommodation with outdoor lavatories since the Spitak earthquake struck in 1988, killing her son. A draft blows through a cracked glass pane in an ill-fitting window frame, and there are gaps under the door and between the walls chipboard panels.


Hranush is one of 4,000 elderly people listed by the local social services as living alone and in need. She has no running water, is not connected to the citys gas grid and has no telephone, but she is proud of her two-room home, and keeps it beautifully tidy. She relies on a neighbour to carry the buckets of water she requires for cooking and washing from a standpipe.

Since becoming a beneficiary of the Red Cross programme, Hranush feels the quality of her life has improved immeasurably. She gets twice-weekly visits from Gohar as well as the nurse helpers, who have become like family. They are like my daughters! says Hranush with a broad grin. House-proud Hranush refuses to let her visitors clean and tidy her home, but is only too glad that they take her neighbours job and fill her buckets at a distant standpipe.

Lena Petrosyan, 88


Cold rises up through the concrete floor in the garage where Lena lives alone on the outskirts of Gyurmi. The garage is cold, dark and damp, lit by a single bare bulb. As we arrive for our first visit, Lena is hunched over a bucket washing her only change of clothes.

Near the stove is a pile of wet wood that she bought the previous day with her monthly pension. The cupboards are empty. In tears, she shakes her purse to show that it, too, is now empty. All she has is a cardboard box with some official papers and photographs, and a bible under her pillow.


Lenas six brothers and sisters are all dead. Her 70-year-old son lives in Russia but has a serious health condition that prevents him from returning to Gyumri to look after his mother. Lena relies on the goodwill of her neighbours to buy medication, and some food from time to time. As a result of a cataract she has difficulty seeing.

Svetlana, the Red Cross nurse manager, is here to see if Lena can become a beneficiary of the programme. Lena confides to her that she has not bathed for three months. She says the neighbours offered her a shower but she was too shy and refused.

The Red Cross has now taken Lena on to their programme, but her eyesight has deteriorated to the point that she can no longer see anyones features. Although she has a good grasp of her living space, she now only uses aluminium cups as she has broken all her glassware. The Red Cross are seeking the funds so that Lena can have the eye operation that would restore some of her vision. When I visit her in 2018, I ask her about the bible she treasured under her pillow. I dont have it any more. The owner took it back.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/sep/29/struggle-to-survive-poverty-armenia-nick-danziger

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