In just 30 years, the population of Bulgaria has decreased by 1.5 million, with a worryingly large proportion of the remaining 7.1 million over the age of 60. In fact, Bulgaria is ranked fourth in the world for its proportion of elderly citizens.
A unique combination of low fertility rates and unprecedented out-migration has led to this demographic, and a weak economy has meant people of working age have moved out to the cities and abroad in huge numbers.
The consequences are significant for senior citizens in Bulgaria, who have to cope with diminishing pensions, rising living costs, uncertain healthcare provision, dilapidating housing, increased environmental pollution and truncated family ties.
Lecturer in Urban Studies, Dr Deljana Iossifova, describes some of the everyday challenges faced by older people in Bulgaria: "Just getting out of your home may prove an insurmountable challenge if you live in a communist-era high-rise building where lifts don’t work," she explains.
"With family abroad and no public service provision, senior citizens have to run their errands themselves.
"In villages, the elderly are often vulnerable to extreme weather, such as heavy snow in winter. Many depend on wood-burning stoves but can’t afford to pay for the wood and sometimes end up burning anything just to keep warm, with tremendous implications for their health."
The project is employing some rather interesting and innovative research techniques in order to connect with its subjects and get authentic, high-quality data. Delijana explains: "I use photo-elicitation interviewing, where subjects are encouraged to look at photographs, usually of local places that have undergone change, and also transect walks, where I accompany a participant as they walk through an area of interest and comment on the places passed.
"These techniques enable us to see things through the participant’s eyes as they narrate their memories and experiences and add meaning to specific places."
While this project is focusing on uncovering and understanding the issues, its ultimate aims are more than purely academic, and Deljana hopes the findings will influence policy and make a difference on the ground. "I’ve no doubt that this project will show that quality of life for the elderly can only improve if policy makers, planners and other decision-makers begin to look at ageing as embedded within existing and emerging social, economic and environmental systems," she adds.
The current demographic isn’t going to reverse. If anything, it’s going to become even more severe, and systemic change is urgently needed.
Deljana knows more than most about how the situation in Bulgaria has deteriorated; she was born there and grew up in Sofia, the capital. "I vividly remember the close-knit community where I grew up," she continues.
"In villages, the elderly are often vulnerable to extreme weather, such as heavy snow in winter. Many depend on wood-burning stoves but can’t afford to pay for the wood and sometimes end up burning anything just to keep warm, with tremendous implications for their health."Dr Deljana Iossifova / Lecturer, Urban Studies
"Our parents could go to work knowing we would be taken care of by our grandparents and other elderly neighbours. They would feed us, read stories to us or simply have us hanging out and playing together underneath their dining tables.
"At the same time, they could count on our older siblings or parents to run errands. Pensions were sufficient and healthcare was free for all.
"This all sounds very idyllic, and I am sure it wasn’t all good, but those values that constituted the glue in an impoverished society back then – and especially the respect for the elderly and their contribution to society – seem to have all but disappeared."