A gateway to Siberia, the Kurgan region lies south of the Ural Mountains and is dissected by the Trans-Siberian railway. At its heart is Kurgan City, one of Siberia's oldest cities, and one which is developing a new life for its senior citizens.
According to the last census, people of retirement age are the fastest growing demographic in Russia. While in the West old age is often seen as a time to indulge in hobbies, travel, spend more time with loved ones, in Russia retirement is often perceived as the gloomiest, loneliest and, in economic terms, the least secure years of life.
Kurgan authorities have come up with an innovative way to, on the one hand, decrease the budgetary burden associated with providing for the elderly population, and on the other hand, give senior citizens the love and care that they need.
Alexandra Naidanova is 89 years old, but she does not have too many happy memories to dwell on; a loveless childhood, a war-colored youth and a hardworking adult life. At 25, she married an older man, and devoted her time to caring for him. They did not have children so she always knew that eventually she would be all alone.
“People used to ask me why I worked so much”, says Alexandra Naidanova. “They would say, ‘you don't have kids, why do you need money?’ And I would respond, ‘if I had kids, they'd help me when I'm old. But since I don’t have children, I needed to work hard’. At least they would accept me in a retirement home.”
Yet, her fate took a turn she could never have expected. When Alexandra could no longer care for herself and was about to move into a nursing home, a local family offered to adopt her. Overnight she gained two grown-up kids and a granddaughter who seemed to need her just as much as she needed them.
“My mother passed away and we just couldn't come to terms with it,” explains Natalia Viktorova, a member of an adoption program. “We were really longing to have a grandmother in the house – her advice, her company… We just really wanted to have an older person around.”
Natalia’s family is part of the senior adoption program pioneered in the Kurgan region six years ago. The local authorities say it is win-win for all involved, with senior citizens receiving family care and the adopting family getting benefit payments in return. One hundred dollars a month may not seem like a lot, but in remote Russian villages where jobs are scarce, any source of income is valuable.
“If we place a senior citizen in a nursing home, it costs the local budget between 400 and 500 dollars per month,” Natalia Skorobogatova from Kurgan region's social services says. “But when they live with families, it's down to about a 100 dollars per person. The economic effect is obvious but the most important thing is that elderly people enjoy the comforts of family life.”
Yet, despite its apparent all-round appeal, the program is still small, involving only around 50 pensioners. And there is a cultural reason for it.
Traditionally in Russia, elder care has been seen as a responsibility of family members. Being placed in a nursing home is still associated with shame and stigma. Besides, it seems the idea of living with strangers is not the easiest sell, either.
When another pensioner, Zainab, joined Galina and her mother, the arrangement was it would be only for a year. Zainab is 72, and has no children or close relatives. And she is deeply concerned her deteriorating health will be a burden for others.
”I like it here," says Zainab Zarifulina. “We haven't had a single fight, but who am I for them? Why should they care for me when I can barely move around? I don't want to burden anyone.”
While Zainab does not feel there is a lot to celebrate about being old, and hopes her remaining time will be brief, she says at least now she has somebody to talk to.
In the United States, the industry of assisted living is quite well developed, with more than 30,000 nursing homes across the country. Assisted living in the US is seen as a real business, as a way for the elderly to be independent from their families in the economic and medical sense, claims Pavel Komogorov, a Kurgan region official.
The situation in Russia is very different as elderly people equate such nursing homes with loneliness and are unwilling to go there.
“There’s no business like assisted living and institutions of this kind are totally on the local or on the federal budget. Culturally, people are very afraid of finding themselves in these homes, in these kinds of institutions, because they don’t want to be a burden to the government, they want to be with their families,” said Komogorov.
Getting older is one of the four biggest fears in Russian society, on a par with worries over terrorism, natural disasters and crime. People are apprehensive about aging because of the associated health problems, poverty, loss of dignity and loneliness.
But at least for some pensioners in the Kurgan region it is no longer the same old story.