Restoring the Dignity of the Elderly
By Kathryn Paik*
October 8, 2010 —When I met Ashkhen at Narek Elderly Center in Armenia, she had already been there 11 years. Until her arrival at the center, her long life had been characterized by hardship and the struggle to survive. Thanks to the care she receives at the center, which is supported by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), Ashkhen is rediscovering a sense of her own dignity.
An ethnic Armenian, Ashkhen was born in 1925 in Karhat, a small village in western Azerbaijan. The area has long been hotly contested between Armenia and Azerbaijan and, decades later, would erupt in war. In 1925, though, both countries had just been pulled into the orbit of what was then the Soviet Union.
At the age of 16, in 1941, Ashkhen was kidnapped by an Azeri and forced to work in slave-like conditions, from dawn until well into the evening, on a farm. A year later she gave birth to a son.
In 1990, war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the secessionist ethnic Armenian area of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ashkhen’s village was shelled and looted, and her grandchildren were slaughtered.
Ashkhen hid under a bed and remained there for 15 days. When she was found by Azeri soldiers, she was completely paralyzed by the trauma. Eventually, the Azeris transported her to the Armenian border and left her there. She has not seen her son in the 20 years that have since passed.
Eleven years ago, Ashkhen was found digging naked in a garbage dump by a kind Shoger Mikaelyan, who runs the Narek Elderly Center outside Yerevan, Armenia. Mrs. Mikaelyan and her husband took Ashkhen under their wing, and Ashkhen has lived at the center ever since.
When I visited there, she kissed me and told me about her youth and how she now has a home and a family. Pointing to Mr. and Mrs. Mikaelyan, Ashkhen said in old Armenian, “This is my father and mother. They take good care of me.” Many residents of Narek Elderly Center have stories similar to Ashkhen’s.
The Narek Elderly Center is supported by UMCOR Armenia’s Cheese Distribution Project, which is funded by the US Department of State, and the PASS Foods Project, which is funded by Foods Resource Bank.
Before UMCOR began its nutrition support program, the center was unable to provide its residents with a regular source of protein. There was cheese once a week, if at all. Now, thanks to the program, the center offers residents 40 grams of cheese each day, along with other nutritious foods.
UMCOR is also helping the center procure its own food source and become self-sustaining. We have helped it establish a small-scale farm and provided beehives and dairy cows and related training in apiculture, animal husbandry, and diversified food preparation. UMCOR’s projects enable the center to provide its residents with a nutritious daily diet of honey, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products.
Four members of the Mikaelyan family provide around-the-clock care to the center’s 30 elderly residents. There are more than 70 people on the waiting list. Narek Elderly Center’s caretakers eagerly participated in UMCOR trainings so that they could improve their ability to look after the residents.
UMCOR’s programs help to restore the dignity of the elderly people—like Ashkhen—who live among us. Your gift to Armenia Emergency, UMCOR Advance #250225, supports programs like those at Narek Elderly Center.
*Kathryn Paik is UMCOR NGO program officer for Armenia.