“Alone, vulnerable and deprived” is how Galena Stoyanova, a pensioner and lifelong lawyer in Bulgaria, describes living conditions for elderly people in the country, in an interview with The Borgen Project. According to data from the Bulgarian National Social Security Institute (NSSI) in 2021, the total number of pensioners in Bulgaria stood at a little more than 2 million and the average pension was 566 BGN (roughly $300) per month. Data from 2022 shows that 590,000 pensioners receive a pension of 370 BGN (about $200) or less per month. Efforts are underway to address elderly poverty in Bulgaria.
Poverty Among Pensioners
The rising cost of living makes it hard for retirees to keep up and aggravates elderly poverty in Bulgaria. Stoyanova shares that the entirety of the average pensioner’s income goes toward basic needs like food, household bills and medication. Some pensioners have to compromise their health, buying only medicine of the greatest need and not everything prescribed in order to cope with the rising cost of living.
Data by Eurostat reveals that, across the EU, Bulgaria had the highest rates of severe material and social deprivation for people aged 65 and older in 2020. The rate stood at 25.7% compared to an average of 16.5% for those aged between 18 and 64 in Bulgaria.
Stoyanova also says that the asset ceiling of pensions continues to rise while the minimum pension has not budged in years. The political instability and economic uncertainty Bulgaria faces exacerbate living conditions for all, including the elderly.
In June 2022, a no-confidence vote dissolved Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s government. The Petkov-led government stood in power for less than eight months, leading to a second parliamentary election in less than a year.
Bulgaria’s center-right GERB party, which has run the country for 12 years, assumed command once again but is the “target of widespread corruption accusations,” according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The shifts in the government lead to the economic instability that has an impact on elderly poverty in Bulgaria. The pension system is “fundamentally unstable” and recent pension reforms may worsen this. As an expert in the legal field, Stoyanova says elderly poverty in Bulgaria is an issue that politicians often overlook.
The Baba Residence
An initiative, the Baba Residence, which native Bulgarian Yani Taneva launched, aids isolated elderly people living in low-density villages by connecting them with urban youth. The project’s main goal is to engage young people’s entrepreneurial spirits and connect them with the traditional culture of the elderly by encouraging participants to spend a month living and learning in the villages. So far, the organization has managed to help more than 1,500 citizens across 36 villages.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Militsa Dzhandzhova, manager of the Baba Residence project, shares that project participants created strong bonds with locals and developed original business ideas.
Baba Residence Initiatives
Some of the initiatives include transforming a dysfunctional school into a community center that hosts local photography exhibitions, cooking festivals and textile fairs. The renovation helped bring people to the villages and tackled the isolation that the elderly experience by giving them the opportunity to showcase their skills and even earn money while doing so.
The organization has also helped locals and brought income to pensioners through “a social enterprise for the export of woven products” made by elderly female villagers, a “professional studio recording of a CD with folklore songs… from the Rhodope Mountains” and “many cleaned and newly marked mountain eco-trails” that bring tourists to the rural communities.
The business enterprises present an opportunity to bring a sustainable economic boost into the villages and find new ways to meet urgent needs. All the income the enterprises generate is distributed among the elderly people involved and the initiators of the projects.
Additionally, the campaign “One Percent Change,” introduced by participants, helps meet the basic needs of elderly people living in poverty. The participants installed new window frames in residences to retain heat in homes during the colder months (a total of 25 households benefited from the campaign). Furthermore, about 40 senior villagers received dental prostheses and the upcoming Christmas campaign will provide electronic appliances to 27 homes in Salash village. Overall, the campaigns tackle elderly poverty in Bulgaria and raise awareness of the issue.
Solidarity Between Generations
According to Dzhandzhova, the lack of interaction and engagement between the younger Bulgarian generation and the elderly turns poor people into isolated people.
In accordance with Dzhandzhova’s views, Stoyanova says that the elderly have been forgotten as most of Bulgaria’s youth have moved away from the country, causing demographic issues and leaving behind their compatriots to tackle corruption, injustice, inequality and poverty.
In 2022, the total number of elderly people living in poverty in Bulgaria is more than 306,000. For most of them, pensions play a key part in maintaining a good living standard and are their only source of income. Although initiatives like the Baba Residence certainly make an impact, lasting and significant improvements in the rates of elderly poverty in Bulgaria can only occur through comprehensive governmental policies and social programs that provide adequate support.
– Ralitsa Pashkuleva