Spain’s Jobless Rely on Family, a Frail Crutch

The New York Time, 28/7/2012

Rachel Chaudler

Until two years ago, Ms. 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," Ms. Oliver said.

In the suburbs of Barcelona, Mari Ángeles Ramiro Trenado was down to earning just 120 euros, about $150, a month and facing monthly rent of 500 euros, about $615, when she and her brother decided to take their mother out of a nursing home this year. On a recent afternoon, Ms. 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, was demanding to be taken back to the nursing home. Ms. 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 600 euros, 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 not only dealing with the financial aspects of the crisis, but also suffering from watching the collapse of their children's lives. Antonio Martín 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. Ms. Martín 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, Ms. Fernández 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 — about 200 euros a month, or roughly $245 — 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.

Ms. Fernández 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.

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