Spain’s Jobless Rely on Family, a Frail Crutch

The New York Time, 28/7/2012


ZARAGOZA, Spain — Dolores Fernández Mora, 76, and her husband, Mariano Blesa Julvé, 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 Ms. Fernández, 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. Ángel García, 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 survey this year by Simple Lógica, 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 in February 2012, that number had risen to 40 percent. Data compiled by an association of private nursing homes,, 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 euro zone. 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 García, 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 Ms. Oliver's 80-year-old mother at home rather than putting her in a nursing home. Ms. Oliver's mother, already suffering from Alzheimer's, had three strokes last year, which left her in a vegetative state.

While Ms. Oliver's mother was alive, she lay in a hospital bed in Ms. Oliver's stifling living room, surrounded by piles of medical supplies, including her liquid meals. Ms. 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," Ms. Oliver said earlier this month. But a week later, her mother died.


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