An old radio plays background music as Cira Madrid, 83, prepares coffee for a rare visitor to her small but spotless apartment in Caracas, where she lives alone.
Her face lights up at the arrival of Morella Russian, a volunteer with the Convite NGO whose projects include taking care of Venezuela’s elderly — thousands of them abandoned amid an exodus of younger people seeking better lives elsewhere.
“My good girl!” Russian, 66, greets the older woman with an affectionate hug. “How have you been? Are you sunbathing?”
Over coffee and cookies in the sitting room, Madrid, who walks bent over a cane, tells Russian about her life since the last time they met.
She complains about joint pain, but insists she has been diligently doing the mobility exercises prescribed by a doctor.
“Sometimes it’s embarrassing to… call her because I know that she also has many things to do,” Madrid told AFP of her visitor, whom she described as “a light” and “a blessing.”
Her own son, she said with tears in her eyes, emigrated to Costa Rica in 2015, and “for years, he has not sent me a cent.”
Venezuela suffers grinding poverty and a political crisis that has pushed more than seven million of its citizens to flee the country in recent years, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
Food, medicine and such basics as soap and toilet paper are often in short supply.
Many risk life and limb on a long, dangerous trek through Central America and Mexico in a bid to reach the United States.
But most — nearly six million — live in other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in what the UNHCR describes as “one of the largest displacement crises in the world.”
Organizations such as Convite do what they can for those left behind and getting older alone with ever-diminishing purchasing power and a crumbling public health system.
– ‘Food for the soul’ –
According to the NGO, half a million old people among the country’s five million pensioners live completely alone, abandoned by what it describes as a “precarious” elderly care system.
Many rely entirely on help from family members, donations, informal work or humanitarian assistance.
The South American country’s government launched a social program for the elderly in 2011, but has no figures available on what it has achieved.
Convite launched in Caracas two years ago, and hopes to expand to other cities.
“Our function is not to bring them a plate of food, but food for the soul,” said Maria Carolina Borges, a 58-year-old volunteer.
Caregivers like her are trained to help the elderly with practical day-to-day needs, but also to cope with anxiety, sleep problems, loneliness or sadness.
Among Borges’s charges is Maria Dolores Jaimes, 76, who lives with two of her four children, two dogs and a parrot — but lacks enough money for some basics.
Jaimes considers Borges as another of her daughters.
“Sometimes I feel important because she calls me almost every day,” Jaimes explained.
“She organized several gynecology consultations for me, and dental appointments too.”
Borges, she said, takes care of her “unseen needs.”