Alice Keshisyan, 94, couldn’t sleep a wink the night before Sveta Khachatryan’s visit.
“I want to wear my skirt, it should be somewhere there,” she tells Sveta when she arrives. Sveta wants her to take a bath but Alice wants to celebrate their first meeting since she recovered from Covid-19. “Let’s just talk, do you want me to sing?”
Sveta, 68, has been visiting Alice regularly for 26 years as a caregiver with the non-governmental organization Mission Armenia. Based in the capital Yerevan, Sveta cares for 17 elderly clients, known as beneficiaries.
Alice was one of Sveta’s first assignments, and she has been visiting her once a week ever since to help her bath and care for herself.
When Sveta met Alice, over a quarter of a century ago, the job was far from the life she had planned for herself. A trained mathematician, Sveta worked at the Sergey Mergelyan Yerevan Computer Research and Development Institute for 19 years. But when the institute closed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sveta’s career as a mathematician ended as well. She was left with two children to feed and few options.
Her brother-in-law suggested she contact a former colleague, Hripsime Kirakosyan, who had started Mission Armenia. Hripsime warned Sveta the job would be tough. She gave her a week to try it out. In August 1995, Sveta took on her first beneficiaries.
“I had no other choice. I had to take care of my kids. My husband wasn’t motivated to work so I had to,” Sveta recalls.
“I was repeating to myself ‘you need to work, you need to help people.’ I got attached to them and their pain and their problems somehow became mine… When I look back, I can’t believe we managed it, when there was no electricity, no heating.”
Sveta remembers how difficult the work was at first—she went from managing a computer to helping elderly people, many of them bedridden and sick, bath and care for themselves.
“The transition was really hard. I used to work in very comfortable conditions and this new job was like being pushed down to the bottom of life,” she says. But with time, Sveta notes, helping others started to help her, too.
“At the end of the day, I started to feel comforted because I was helping those in need. I have fallen and climbed back many heights in my life. This life wasn’t easy for anyone. Maybe that is the way it should be,” she says.
Over the years, Sveta has formed close bonds with her beneficiaries, like Alice, who loves to sing and chat during her visits. Or Karine Tonoyan, 67, who is one of the youngest of the 2100 beneficiaries Mission Armenia helps through its Home Care for the Elderly program in Yerevan and six other Armenian regions.
Sveta visits Karine once a week, helping her with groceries, cooking and cleaning. She also gives her a bath and even helps her to color her hair. For Karine, however, Sveta is more than a helping hand. Her weekly visits have become a holiday away from the boredom of living alone.
“I care for 17 people. I live 17 different lives. I visit three beneficiaries a day and usually stay with them for two hours. There is always something to do, they usually have no one to help them. And, if by any chance there are fewer chores to do, I sit with them and we talk. They miss people who just talk to them, just share ordinary information, just listen to them,” Sveta says.
She says that for many of her clients, she is the only visitor they get.
“That’s what surprised me most: children can leave their parents and not look after them… Sometimes I call the relatives of old people and tell them that my beneficiary is not well and may pass away any moment. Sometimes they don’t come and I find that person dead the next day,” she says.
“This job deals with human beings, and it is a difficult job. Old people are like children: some of them are naughty, some are calm and obedient, and some are stubborn. But they are still humans, so we should treat them like humans.”
This story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.