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Tourists take pictures of the Kremlin as they visit the Red Square in downtown Moscow on Friday.

Despite political clout, Russian seniors find later life options limited

Though their numbers are increasing and their voting bloc powerful, elderly Russians generally lack either the savings or sufficient government pension to finance a comfortable retirement.

A World Living Longer: Global aging is one of the greatest challenges of the century. And this is not just a “Western” problem. Politicians and policy makers around the world are rethinking healthcare networks, urban design, nursing care, and pension systems to prepare for it. The elderly themselves are key players to help turn this from challenge to opportunity.

For more in the Monitor's look at global aging issues and solutions, please visit our series homepage.

The "Third Age" home for the elderly is a clean, modern, privately-run facility for about 50 people in this hilly satellite town just outside Moscow.

It represents the high end in the range of options facing the growing numbers of Russian retirees: offering around-the-clock care, comfortable rooms done in Soviet-era decor to remind them of their youth, friendly and well-trained staff, and various stimulating forms of recreation.

"We take a personal approach to each resident. It's not just about eating and sleeping, but about maximizing possibilities, encouraging social interaction, and improving the quality of life for body and mind," says Irina Pokhotko, the home's medical supervisor. "Of course we offer far more than you will find in state facilities."

You might think this comfortable and apparently well-run home is – or ought to be – the wave of the future in a country that's graying fast, and whose rising private business economy is being encouraged by government to step in and shoulder the burden of social services formerly run by the state.

But, although the private sector is growing fast, there are few reasons to believe homes like this are ever likely to become the standard retirement venue for most aging Russians.

Tradition remains strong here, and huge numbers of pensioners still live with their families. Millions more take refuge in state-run old age homes, which are of varying quality. Due to the unusual political strength of pensioners and war veterans in Soviet and now Russian society, publicly-run facilities for the elderly have always been relatively well-resourced and are currently under pressure from the federal government to modernize and standardize their services.

"I'm a pensioner myself now, though I plan to work as long as I possibly can and then hope for a swift death," says demographer Boris Denisov, who recently reached the male retirement age of 60. For women, it's 55 in Russia. Controversial new laws aim to gradually raise those ages. "Growing old is not a pleasant prospect anywhere, but for most Russians it still spells poverty."

The pensioner's plight

Russia's demographic picture closely resembles that of northern Europe, with the ratio between retirees and working-age adults inexorably swinging toward the former.

Unlike their Western counterparts, however, most Russians have never had the opportunity to accumulate the property and savings that might enable them to finance a comfortable retirement for themselves. Pensions paid to Russia's almost 35 million elderly citizens are seldom more than the equivalent of $500 per month – many live on far less. That's a problem, because the most minimal package at homes like "Third Age" start at around $60 per day.

"We are in the category of premium services. The average pensioner in Russia today could simply not afford this," says Svetlana Gres, resident manager of the Strogino facility. "Some have children who can pay, and demand is growing, but it's still comparatively small."

Hence, the search is on for public solutions.

In previous years, it was World War II veterans, who are specially venerated in Russian society, who kept official noses glued to the problems of senior citizens. The first big political crisis faced by Vladimir Putin's new administration came a dozen years ago, when it tried to reform Russia's welfare system by transferring many material benefits for the elderly into cash payments. Hundreds of thousands of angry war veterans took to the streets, and forced the Kremlin to back off.

Pensioners' groups were also instrumental in compelling the government to relax mandatory retirement rules in 2008. As a result the number of pensioners in the working population soared from one-in-six to one-in-three today according to Project 50+, a state-funded public group that aims to bring private business, government, and society together to "change stereotypes and find ways to promote more active lives" for senior citizens.

Political clout

With numbers of war vets inexorably waning, a variety of newer public organizations are stepping in to advocate for pensioners. Unlike Soviet times, when the goal was basically to warehouse older people who could no longer fend for themselves, the aim of groups like Project 50+ and the relatively new Union of Pensioners is to extend active life and expand social access and opportunities for Russians as they grow older.

"Pensioners these days are politically active because they have lots of free time, lots of extra energy, and there is a strong wish to influence public opinion," says Vladimir Klenin, an activist with the Union of Pensioners, which lobbies for senior citizens' rights. "There are about 3 million pensioners just in the Moscow area, and at least half of them are physically active. They are disciplined, they consider it their duty to take part in public life and in elections, of course. Despite the harsh conditions of their lives, they are warmly responsive to any sign of public support, and they are ready to act."

Voters of retirement age made up a whopping 70 percent of those who cast ballots in last September's parliamentary elections, which makes them a formidable bloc, earnestly courted by all political parties. Despite Russia's ongoing economic slump, authorities make sure that pensions are regularly increased and indexed to inflation.

"Pensioners are a huge, and very active force," says Alexander Ladygin, who ran as a Communist Party candidate in Yekaterinburg. "Maybe in other countries it's young people, but here the authorities are terrified of passionate pensioners. They organize and go after what they want."

What they seem to want is more jobs, better services directed at their needs, and less social discrimination against older people. Sociological polls cited by Project 50+ show that 89 percent of Russians over 50 want to continue their careers after they hit retirement age, and two-thirds of all Russians believe businesses should re-shape their priorities to take account of the older population.

These are the wider goals of the Party of Pensioners for Justice, created four years ago on a model that's increasingly cropping up around Europe. It won just over 2 percent in the recent elections, which does not entitle it to seats in parliament.

Elderly care reform

It's not just about elections, but about changing the social equation for older Russians, says the party's deputy chair, Vladimir Vorontsov.

"Old age shouldn't be a sentence to serve, but a new and interesting stage of life. We try to facilitate direct connections between old age homes and local orphanages, because that interaction between the oldest and the youngest is crucial. We run clubs for things like ballroom dancing or folklore," he says. "That's as important as our political work, which aims at improving material conditions and protecting the rights of working pensioners."

The Moscow city government refused permission for the Monitor to visit one of the scores of old age homes it operates around the city. Experts say that since management of such facilities was decentralized following the collapse of the Soviet Union, quality varies from region to region.

"Many regions are severely underfunded. They try hard to meet their obligations, but often just can't cope," says Alexei Simoyanov, an expert with the left-wing Institute for Study of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. "Cuts in subsidies, low professional standards in old age homes, and multiplying bureaucratic requirements just to realize one's rights, all combine to make it increasingly hard to be old in this country."

Reforms initiated by the central government are due to address many of those problems, according to a Nov. 28 article in the government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta. New federal regulations will require that all staff in state and private nursing homes be professionally qualified, will set universal standards of care, and mandate the installation of modern therapy equipment and specialized geriatric furniture, it said.

"A lot of resources are, in fact, spent on care of the elderly in this country, but it could be streamlined much better," says Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economic sociologist who just hit pension age himself. "Most Russians haven't seen any major improvement in their prospects since Soviet times, so reforms in this area are long overdue."

For more in A World Living Longer, the Monitor's look at global aging issues and solutions, please visit our series homepage.

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