A STITCH IN TIME

text and photography by Ivan Sokolov

In her efforts to help a Bulgarian pensioner in the village of Rosen, near Burgas, Catherine Almond has found herself in the midst of the quagmire of Bulgarian buraeucracy

Catherine Almond

A cold winter morning in the village of Rosen some 25 km from Burgas. What has brought me here is a letter from a Vagabond reader who complained about the inadequacy of the Bulgarian social services (see Vagabond No. 4). Along with her Bulgarian friend Tanya and another British expat, Susanna, Catherine Almond has been looking after a Bulgarian lady who is in a difficult predicament. She is immobile and incontinent and can't do anything for herself.

Despite the help promised by the local authorities, writes Catherine, no action has been taken to get her into a home for people such as herself.

It all began last July when Sofia Hristova, aged 57, burnt her leg with hot water. Deserted by her family and suffering from severe senile dementia, she was literally saved by Tanya and her English friends. As she had no social security or pension, her guardian angels had to buy her medicine, food, clothes and bedding out of their own pockets. Since then, Tanya has been changing the dressing of her wound, washing her and cleaning the room where she lives.

Other people, including Sozopol's deputy mayor and the chairman of the municipal council, have helped financially too. What Tanya worries about, however, is that it is difficult for her to lift the immobile woman to clean her bed and dress her. Being a mother of a two-year-old child, she is also afraid she might spread an infection in her own house.

The solution is to have a social assistant assigned to Sofia, or for her to go into a home for the elderly immediately. Despite promises, neither has happened so far.

"It's a difficult case," admits Mrs Shterionova, head of the Social Services Department in Sozopol, and assures me they have done everything in their power to help. As Sofia's ID card was missing, they had to issue her a new one so that she could apply for a place in an old people's home. Her social security was paid for and she had psychiatric examinations. They collected all the necessary papers regarding her marital, financial and medical status. It turned out that she was not without family: she is still legally married to a man whose whereabouts are unknown and has a brother living in Burgas. Having inherited some land, she was not exactly penniless either.

Now that Sofia's papers are all ready, Mrs Shterionova promises it won't be long before she can have a place in a home. Exactly how soon this will happen, she doesn't know.

There are other people waiting and beds have been reduced by about 20 percent due to EU requirements for room occupancy. Until then, the sick woman will have to rely on the kindness of her friends in Rosen, because the municipality in Sozopol can't do anything else: it doesn't have a social assistant's project and therefore can't employ anybody to look after her.

Later that day, I am sitting at home, flicking through the TV channels and mulling over the different angles to this story. The words strike my mind even before I hear them from the screen:

"The law says so."

"What law?"

"Catch 22."

"That's some catch, that Catch 22."

"It's the best there is."

Like the hero in the movie based on Joseph Heller's novel, lonely Bulgarian people often find themselves entrapped in a vicious circle. To be assigned a personal assistant, they have to be examined by an expert committee of physicians and proven to be disabled. Those immobile in bed, however, need an assistant in the first place to help them with the paperwork and take them to the examination. However eager to help social workers may be, they have to stick to certain regulations and get a number of documents before they decide how to act.

The process requires up to three weeks, or even more if an important document, such as ID, is missing. Even after that, people have to wait until a placement is found for them in a suitable home. For many, even the smallest delay might prove fatal.

The popular saying goes that "a stitch in time saves nine". In this case, the stitch that the Good Samaritans of Rosen have made has probably saved a human life.

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