POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 29, 2012
ZARAGOZA, Spain >> Dolores Fernandez Mora, 76, and her husband, Mariano Blesa Julve, 75, once thought they would end their days in relative comfort, their house paid off and a solid pension of about $1,645 a month. Perhaps they would travel a bit.
Instead, they are supporting their unemployed 48-year-old daughter and two of her unemployed adult sons who now live with them in their tiny two-bedroom home here in northern Spain. They have taken over their daughter’s debts. Sometimes there is hardly money for food.
“While she isn’t working, I don’t have new teeth, and that is that,” said Fernandez, who, seated in her living room recently, showed off the gaps in her smile.
As the effects of years of recession pile up here, more and more Spanish families — with unemployment checks running out and stuck with mortgages they cannot pay — are leaning hard on their elderly relatives. And there is little relief in sight.
Spain’s latest round of austerity measures appears to have done little to restore investor confidence. And new employment statistics released Friday showed that the jobless rate had risen to a record 25 percent.
Pensions for the elderly are among the few benefits that have not been slashed, though they have been frozen since last year. The Spanish are known for their strong family networks, and most grandparents are eager to help, unwilling to admit to outsiders what is going on, experts say.
But those who work with older people say it has not been easy. Many struggle to feed three generations now, their homes overcrowded and the tensions of the situation sometimes turning their lives to misery.
In some cases, families are removing their relatives from nursing homes so they can collect their pensions. It is a trend that has advocates concerned about whether the younger generations are going too far, even if grandparents agree to the move or are too infirm to notice.
“The crisis in Spain is affecting the elderly in a very special way,” said the Rev. Angel Garcia, who runs a nonprofit group helping children and the elderly. “Many grandparents want to give what they can, and they do. But, unfortunately, sometimes what is happening is that the younger generation is ransacking the older generation. They are taking all that they have.”
A recent survey by Simple Logica, Gallup’s partner in Spain, found a sharp increase in the number of older people supporting family members. In a telephone survey conducted in February 2010, 15 percent of adults 65 and older said they supported at least one younger relative. In the survey conducted February 2012, that number had risen to 40 percent.
Data compiled by an association of private nursing homes, inforesidencias.com, found that in 2009, 76 percent of its member homes said they had vacancies. Last year, 98 percent of them did.
Such numbers, experts say, reflect growing desperation in Spain, which has the highest unemployment rate in the eurozone. According to recent government figures, about 1 in 10 households now has no working adults.
Some experts say they believe that retired people, sharing their pensions and dipping into their savings, have been the silent heroes of the economic crisis, and that without them Spain would be seeing far more social unrest. In many cases, they stand between their middle-aged children and homelessness.
“Why aren’t there more people in the streets protesting, asking for food?” said Gustavo Garcia, director of Casa Amparo, Zaragoza’s municipal nursing home. “The answer is the elderly.”
Certainly that was the case for Petri Oliver, 53, and her husband, Pedro Grande, 53, who were able to survive until recently, they said, only because they were taking care of Oliver’s 80-year-old mother at home rather than putting her in a nursing home. Oliver’s mother, already suffering from Alzheimer’s, had three strokes last year, which left her in a vegetative state.
While Oliver’s mother was alive, she lay in a hospital bed in Oliver’s stifling living room, surrounded by piles of medical supplies, including her liquid meals. Oliver’s father got 300 euros, almost $370, a month from the state to take care of his wife, money he turned over to his daughter.
“If she goes to a nursing home, we don’t eat,” Oliver said this month. But a week later, her mother died.
Until two years ago, Oliver’s husband worked in construction, despite a workplace accident that left him blind in one eye. These days the couple’s only income is around $1,200 a month in disability payments. But the mortgage is nearly $1,000. They cannot visit their daughter, who lives a two-hour drive away in Barcelona, because they cannot afford the gas. Their daughter has been unemployed, too.
“We don’t know what we are going to do now,” Oliver said.
In the suburbs of Barcelona, Mari Angeles Ramiro Trenado was down to earning about $150 a month and facing monthly rent of about $615, when she and her brother decided to take their mother out of a nursing home this year. On a recent afternoon, Ramiro, who has a mentally disabled adult child at home, too, said that taking care of her mother had left her exhausted and depressed.
But despite her best efforts, her mother, who is so fragile she cannot leave the house and suffers from mental lapses as well, was demanding to be taken back to the nursing home. Ramiro, who works part time as a cleaner in a bank in the village of Ripollet, said she and her brother would comply, though her mother would take her pension of about $740 a month with her.
“I want her to stay,” she said. “I have to admit it. It would help me a lot.”
Experts say that Spain’s elderly are dealing not only with the financial aspects of the crisis, but also suffering from watching the collapse of their children’s lives. Antonio Martin said he lost sight in his right eye after his daughter Antonia, 41, and her baby girl came home to live with him and he developed severe blood pressure problems.
He says he is happy to help Antonia, who lost her job when the construction company she worked for went bankrupt. “I said, ‘Come, come.’ It’s a normal reaction.”
But he said what really bothered him was realizing all she had lost. “She had a job and a house, and now she has nothing,” he said. “That is the thing that is so hard.”
Few leaning on their elderly parents do so easily. In middle age, they can find themselves back in roles they abandoned decades ago. Antonia Martin lives in the minuscule room she grew up in, her belongings stacked to the ceiling. Her daughter’s crib is in her parents’ room because there is no other space. She has to ask for money for food and for clothes for her child.
“There are many occasions I get told off like I am 12 years old,” she said, with a laugh. “But at least I have my parents. Some people don’t even have that.”
For a while, Dolores Fernandez and her husband tried to prop up their daughter’s massage and aromatherapy shop. But the business went under.
Nowadays, they pay the mortgage on their daughter’s apartment — roughly $245 a month — though, to save money on electricity and water, she no longer lives there. But to pay the mortgage, they have given up the fire and theft insurance on their own house and many other smaller expenses.
Fernandez no longer goes to the hairdresser and piles her hair on her head instead; she thinks her grandsons need the haircuts more. “I am pretty enough anyhow,” she joked at one point.
But the brave front disintegrates from time to time. She worries in particular about what will happen if her husband dies before her, reducing the household’s pension by one-third.
“What will become of us then?” she asked, tears filling her eyes.