COPING SKILLS: For 72-year-old Regina, survival means trips to the market to sell preserves and vegetables from her garden, as well as keeping her electricity bill down to 30 litas a month.
VILNIUS - In a heavy winter coat and thick black boots, 72-year-old Irena "Regina" Zilinskiene is standing outside the Hales Market on a cold Saturday afternoon ready to earn extra cash by selling her preserved jams and pickles, as well as beans and other vegetables straight from her garden.
After her husband died of cancer in 2003, her garden became the source of energy that carries her through hard times.
Nowadays, she points out, women grow up prepared to be breadwinners. Such wasn't the case for Regina, who was discouraged from working outside the home.
"My husband was a very good man, but he wanted me to stay a housewife," she said.
Regina's story is, of course, uniquely hers. But the struggle she faces scraping by on a meager income is one shared by thousands of Lithuania's elderly.
Regina invited me to her two-story house in the Salininkai district for an afternoon to explain how she supports herself living as a widow in Lithuania.
At home she wore the same black boots she wore at the market and directed me to the one heated room where she spends most of her day and night.
After serving a cup of black currant tea and biscuits, she talked about growing up in Lithuania and how her parents forced her to marry a wealthy man in order to have a better life.
Her first love, however, was a soldier in the Lithuanian Army, so her parents hid his love letters to make her think he wasn't interested.
"He was poor and my parents didn't like that he was only a half-year older than me. They liked rich men," she said.
In July 1958, the then 22-year-old bride married an older man and later bore two sons.
Regina said that after her husband died, she did not know how to manage a household on her own except by gardening and cooking. She was devastated to the point of committing suicide.
Instead, she picked herself up and learned to manage her bills, chop wood and perform the rest of the household duties on her own.
Like many of Lithuania's aging population, monthly pensions, electricity and heat bills, medical treatment, inflation and safety are her everyday concerns.
"Everyone [the elderly] is very worried because pensions aren't getting higher and we don't know how to save anymore," Regina said.
In Lithuania women are eligible for a state pension at age 60 and men at 62 years and six months. In the second quarter of 2007, the average old-age pension was 577 litas.
When Regina's husband was alive and receiving a worker's pension, the couple shared more than 700 litas a month. Now Regina receives a monthly pension of 250 litas and an additional 124 litas in social aid for being a widow.
"It would be impossible to survive on my own if I didn't have the garden and my children to support me, and I don't like to take money from my family," she said.
To get by, Regina makes every effort to cut down on her use of electricity and gas at home.
The kitchen has no heat and she only switches on the electricity during cold nights and the weekends.
For the last two months, she has managed to keep her electricity bill down to 30 litas a month.
She also uses her wood-fired stove to heat water for cleaning dishes and preparing her baths because the boiler is too expensive to use.
In all, she said, life is harder in terms of feeling safe and secure, too.
A few of her neighbors have had their gas tanks stolen from their houses, and the increasing number of assaults in the neighborhood has caused her to stay home more often.
"Our earlier generations used to be more sensitive, nicer and respectful to others," she said.
Still, her garden provides her a place of peace and refuge throughout the year. And it continues to provide her sustenance.
The next time she goes to the market, she's planning to sell 5 kilos of pickles for 2 to 2.50 litas a half-kilo.