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by Alexia Vlachou

ATHENS, Jan. 24 (Xinhua) -- With cut pensions and a suffering health sector, it has fallen to volunteers and private funding to fill the gap in the decomposed welfare state for seniors in Greece in recent years.

For Vassiliki Chalari, an 80-year-old pensioner, the economic recession has changed her life dramatically.

""With a 300-euro (323 U.S. dollars) pension per month, how can my life not be affected? If you also have children and grandchildren to support and only my son has a job,"" she said.

As a cancer patient, she explained, she now has to pay a large share for her medicines, which used to be free.

Chalari has been with one of the 25 Friendship Clubs for senior citizens that operate in the city of Athens.

""This club keeps me alive. We have a choir and sing, we take craft lessons, we organize feasts. We have gymnastics, lessons for self-defense, but we need volunteers,"" she said.

She has been a member of the club for more than 10 years. She explained that volunteers contribute to the seniors' activities, but all members try to support each other, as a way out of everyday difficulties.

""We have a good time here, there are no misunderstandings,"" said 77-year-old Dimitra Kamakari. Besides socializing, seniors can join activities such as artistic endeavors, gymnastics, cultural venue visits, day trips, and walking tours.

""Due to the economic crisis, we not only have less human and financial resources to provide for social services. But also, we have very strict procedures for public spending due to austerity measures,"" said Maria Stratigaki, vice mayor of Athens for social solidarity, welfare and equality.

As a result, the contribution of private funding in these activities is crucial, she pointed out. ""We need the private sponsors, we need foundations, we also need volunteers,"" she said.

Last year, the city of Athens organized visits for seniors to the Cycladic Art museum with the help of a private company. ""There was a donor who provided services to adapt the whole museum to the needs of seniors,"" Stratigaki said.

Ioannis Karaitianos, president of the Hellenic Association for Gerontology and Geriatrics, also spoke about the growing volunteering movement for the protection of vulnerable groups with chronic diseases in an interview with Xinhua.

""Altruism and unselfishness are feelings that prevail despite the economic crisis. There is a certain bond among the society to provide help and care to seniors on a voluntary basis,"" he said.

According to Karaitianos, who is also chairman of the Department of Surgical Oncology at public Aghios Savvas Cancer Hospital in Athens, the economic crisis has created multiple problems in the health services.

The government has made efforts to streamline health spending, he said. Unnecessary expenses were slashed, but cuts to health funds have made access to preventative screenings difficult for patients with chronic illnesses, he noted.

In an effort to cover the state's gap, NGOs, scientific medical associations, and municipalities' social care programs have taken action.

""There are scientific associations with a specific diagnostic object that organize voluntarily events with free access to preventative screenings and early diagnosis of health problems for people of all ages and especially for those over 65 years old,"" Karaitianos said.

Greece is a country of old people, he stressed. Approximately 20.7 percent of Greeks today are over 65 years old, according to the latest study on Greece's demographic prospects by the Athens-based Dianeosis research organization.

The group of over 65 years old is expected to reach 30 percent of Greek population in 2030 and as high as one in three in 2050.

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