Elders Left Behind: Invisible Victims of Venezuelan Migration

Young people flee the country, but senior citizens have to remain behind to fight helplessly, and often alone, against a pervasive crisis.

Photo: Crónica Una

“Ma’am, I want you to know that your husband has a long list of pathologies that make his prognosis very reserved. If you have any offspring, you should call them to help you. Mr. Victor will probably remain here for a long time and this hospital can be incredibly exhausting.”

That’s what I told Eva, a 70-something woman whose husband, Victor, had just been admitted to Merida Hospital’s ER. Victor, 77, has a congestive heart failure, after years of living with a poorly controlled diabetes, hypertension and two heart attacks, the last of which left his left ventricle barely functional. We stabilized him the best we could, but I wanted to be very clear to Eva as I recorded the information needed at the heavily lit hallway of the stabilization ward, where so many patients like him have died.

When I say a Venezuelan public hospital can be exhausting, I mean it. The only thing worse than being a patient here is being the relative of one: When you don’t have to walk in the middle of the night, searching the few pharmacies still open for things as simple as syringes, or arrange the transportation needed for any of the many exams the hospital theoretically (but not really) offers for free, you must sleep next to your agonizing relative’s stretcher, a thin cardboard being the sole barrier between you and the bacteria-filled hospital floor. On the other hand, we doctors aren’t the best hosts. Always full of work, terrible conditions  and ridiculous salaries, we forget these people are doing way worse than us.

I insisted she should call someone to help her but she answered me she had no one left.

That’s why I felt so bad after Mrs. Eva told me her son had moved to Brazil a few months ago and couldn’t afford to come back anytime soon. I insisted she should call someone to help her but she answered me she had no one left.

Similar stories can be heard daily here. Take a quick look and you’ll see that, excluding the pediatric wards, most patients admitted are elderly. A couple years ago, when I first entered the hospital, most were accompanied by their daughters and sons. Today, brothers and spouses have slowly but consistently taken their place.

Many of them don’t really have a choice; in the middle of a hyperinflationary crisis, bolivars are worthless and the best way to actually help your family is sending them hard currency, to be exchanged here at black market rates. That’s the case of Angel, who has been living in Colombia for the last year, working in three different places at the time. The pesos he earns are the only reason why her hospitalised mother could afford the five-day antibiotic therapy she needed, currently worth six minimum wages.

While new generations flee the country, older people are being left behind.

The effect has been visible for a while: a 2015 estimate by the Venezuelan Society of Cardiology indicated that, by 2025, the proportion of Venezuelans over 60 years old could represent some 11% of the population, almost two times the proportion registered in 2000. The current economic crisis, and the massive migration it has propelled, are simply accelerating this aging process.

The current economic crisis, and the massive migration it has propelled, are simply accelerating this aging process.

According to the latest ENCOVI survey, applied by Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB), Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) and Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB), some 1,4 million Venezuelans are currently living abroad. 78,5% of them left between 2016 and 2017, and 88% were between 15 and 59 years old. Besides forcing children to leave their parents alone in a ruined country, this process will reduce the proportion of economically active population, an effect that will surely have macroeconomic consequences.

The situation for the elderly is not encouraging at all. According to Amnesty International, Venezuelan elders are losing an average of 2 kg per month, and Venezuela currently holds the 76th place out of 96 countries in the AgeWatch’s 2015 Global Aging Index, which measures how good a country is to get older in, ranking below places like Bangladesh and Mongolia. The lack of a functional health system, widespread shortages and the nonexistent purchasing power of pensions irresponsibly offered by the Venezuelan government are two of the biggest problems old folks face here every day.

While many plan to take their parents with them after they get a stable income abroad, the reality is that, in average, every Venezuelan home has lost 1,3 people due to emigration. The crisis is tearing families apart.

What about Victor? Contrary to what we expected, he responded favorably to his treatment and was transferred to a more comfortable area. I could see Mrs. Eva carrying his belongings to the new room, all by herself, while her son could only worry about his father’s condition thousands of kilometers away, all thanks to a failed ideology that some criminals still vow to defend.