Thursday, December 2, 2010

Whole Life for Human Rights: Interview with Choonwhe Cho

Choonwhe Cho is an activist who has a strong passion for human rights. Choonwhe was born and raised in South Korea. She and her family immigrated to the US seeking freedom from political oppression. She has been a never-give-up activist in Korea during the chaotic periods, 1930s to 1970s, and in the US since she immigrated. Choonwhe is in her 80s. She lives in Flushing where many Korean immigrants live.

Awareness of nation’s independence and women

When Choonwhe was born, Japan colonized Korea. She received her education in Japanese. She observed Koreans’ difficulties and resentment. From childhood, she advocated for the nation’s independence and rights of colonial people. In addition, Choonwhe observed the social stigma on women. She was aware of the need of women’s advanced education. She supported women’s rights to receive the equal treatment.

Protest against military dictators

In the 1970s when Choonwhe was in her 40s, South Korea was ruled by a military dictator government. Human rights abuses were widespread. She protested against the dictator government with a passion for democratization. She supported many college student activists against the government. She sent photography to Amnesty International to demonstrate the severe human rights abuses in Korea. The retaliating government oppressed Choonwhe’s family. Her family could not sustain their lives in Korea, so they decided to migrate. The United States seemed the only country that would accept them, so her family immigrated to the US.

Presenting issues to the world

After immigrating, Choonwhe worked for human rights in Asian countries. She traveled to 40 states to speak about the world’s human rights issues. In addition, she asked political and academic figures to write letters to the US government and New York Times to prohibit the Korean military government’s torture of Korean students. She received President Jimmy Carter’s promise to support human rights in Korea against the military government. Later, as a full-time volunteer activist, Choonwhe worked as the representative of Church Women United in its United Nations Office. She addressed the issue of Korean Women drafted for military sexual slavery by Japan during the World War II to the UN International Court of Justice. She demanded compensation for the women and urged the Japanese government to sentence the criminals who trafficked of women.

Understanding Korean seniors’ lives

Choonwhe is now interested in the human rights of the elderly. She believes physical and mental health are significant for the healthy lives of older people. Two years ago, when Korean seniors’ suicide issue became well known, Choonwhe went to Korea to understand Korean seniors’ lives. From several interviews, she found dysfunctional relationship between young children and elderly parents. From the visits to nursing homes in rural areas, she was surprised that seniors were locked in a room and received poor services. There were few family visits. Seniors were vulnerable to loneliness and hopelessness. She thought that social service organizations should treat senior clients like a human being, not just focus on meeting government regulations.


Choonwhe suggests that senior activity classes provided by service agencies are helpful for seniors. Older persons can participate in dancing, writing essay, learning social issues, debriefing life, going on picnics, traveling, eating nutritious food, and receiving transportation assistance. She believes that these activities will improve health and socialization, and eventually increase the quality of life. To make the world better for older persons, she believes that older persons should advocate for themselves. She also believes that older people should share and educate the next generation of older people to protest against injustice. In addition, she was aware of and noticed homeless older people in her community. For the last three years, she and her church have served dinners to homeless seniors and provided a place to stay a night in church.

Choonwhe Cho’s has lived her whole life as an activist with endless passion. Can we be like her?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A day with Chiquita Smith

An Activist for Nursing Home Seniors

GAA interns Nuri Han and Scott Kelly had the pleasure of speaking with a GAA supporter, Chiquita Smith. This Brooklyn activist defends the rights of nursing home residents. Every month Chiquita makes personal visits to several of the 26 nursing homes in her borough. After talking with any residents she knows and getting a sense of the place, she calls the Board of Health or the nursing home director to make sure her concerns about residents’ care are heard. This inspiring work is made even more impressive by the fact that Chiquita is 87 and blind.

“It’s personal”

Over the years Chiquita became interested in elder rights through visits to her family members and friends in nursing homes. “It is personal,” she says about her decision to check up on possible abuses by these institutions that housed her friends and family. Of a more general concern is what she calls the “shifting of seniors”—the trend to move seniors from their apartment or house to an institution, such as a nursing home. She wonders whether older persons living in nursing homes feel comfortable in such unfamiliar surroundings and whether they face abuse or neglect in the institutions.

Chiquita makes it a point to visit a nursing home if one of her friends or relatives has recently moved there. She’s even visited nursing homes as distant as Washington, DC, or Philadelphia.

“Are these people being treated like human beings?”

Whenever Chiquita visits a nursing home, one major question guides her; “Are these people treated like human beings?” To assure that they are, she first engages the residents, asking whether they are properly dressed, not wearing mismatched or dirty clothes. She touches the residents’ hands and talks with them. They always smile at her. They all have stories to tell and they enjoy speaking with other people. She also asks if weekly schedules for the dining hall and for recreational activities are posted. Some nursing homes might only let their residents go outside on rare occasions, left instead sitting and idle inside—a lonely, monotonous existence. Some nursing homes even allow outside businesses, such as a “dollar store,” to come in to offer a selection of items for the residents to buy.

Chiquita checks possible institutional abuses by the nursing home. She said that some nursing home residents with larger pensions are taken advantage of by family and nursing home administrators. Recently, she has focused on how the nursing home may ignore residents’ right to vote in elections. She asks whether they had easy access to a ballot; almost none did. Chiquita believes no one is too old to vote. She contends that the nursing home must facilitate the voting process for its residents. She also tries to talk with the nurses and, if possible, the administrators to make sure they know someone is watching. If the situation is bad, she will call the Board of Health, or make another surprise visit to check up. At her local church she shares her observations with her senior group called “The Golden Circle.” It’s essential for her to share her findings with as many people, through as many channels, as possible.

“Day of Visitation”

Chiquita wants everyone to know that even a little gesture, like a card or phone call, makes a difference for the residents, who may rarely hear from family or friends. She proposes a “Day of Visitation” for those who are interested in these issues. Simply go visit the residents, talk with them, and touch their hands—you’ll be surprised by how appreciative the residents will be! She advises visitors to send cards to the residents after you visit!

On the institutional level, she hopes every nursing home will create a specific “Friends and Family Day” to encourage monthly visits. She suggests people contact their elected officials so he or she will understand the process and politics better. Too often these officials are unaware of the situation at nursing homes.

“Go and visit!”

If you’re interested in learning more about nursing homes, Chiquita suggests calling the Board of Health to get the official list of nursing homes. Then, go visit! Ask for literature on the place and about its policies. Ask questions about how it works, talk with the residents. What are they doing? Where are they? How do they look? It’s not so much a matter of asking the right questions; it’s about letting the administration know that someone is watching so they become more aware and alert to these issues. And, of course, it’s about providing companionship to those who are often neglected. Lastly, Chiquita suggests publicizing what people observe or learn, through Global Action on Aging, your religious institution or any other means you may have.

Inform yourself, engage yourself! Be active like Chiquita! She has been at it for years now and has no plan to stop!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why are older persons not addressed in the Millennium Development Goals?

During the recent celebration of the 20th International Day of Older Persons in New York, Bridget Sleap, a rights policy adviser at HelpAge International, addressed why the Millennium Development goals did not deal adequately with gender equality and discrimination. According to Bridget, governments are not required to reach the most marginalized people and end discrimination against women, making such discrimination "invisible." Often poverty reduction programs ignore the most marginalized population- older women.

Not only do elderly women comprise 60% of the work force in those countries, but they contribute to poverty reduction by spending the small pensions that they have on food. They are more likely to care for families, especially because the gender gap widens with age. In South Africa, for example, 88% of older people caring for their grandchildren were women. If women are such an integral part of promoting and developing their communities, why are they not protected by the MDGs?

Bridget focused on this question and suggested a number of actions that could be taken to strengthen and empower older women. Non-contributory pensions and a minimum level of social protection are needed as a first step. She suggested that the UNWomen Unit take a life course approach and pay greater attention to ageing. Also, CEDAW should include older women as well. Many older women face discrimination, but their hardships are much less frequently addressed. Last but not least, Bridget stated that governments need to enter a discussion about a human rights convention for older persons’ rights. Older women do a lot to uphold their communities. They need to be heard, empowered, and given the tools to do more.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

“Grandmother to Grandmother: New York to Tanzania”

In celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the United Nations International Day of Older Persons, AARP and the Fordham University Ravazzin Center on Aging hosted a Film Screening: “Grandmother to Grandmother: New York to Tanzania.”

The film documentary features the lives of grandmothers raising orphaned grandchildren in New York City and also in Tanzania. While seemingly worlds apart, these grandmothers came together in Tanzania and realizeed that their challenges and experiences were very much the same. The film highlights aging as a gendered experience, and the cultural life course trends that converge to create additional vulnerabilities in the lives of older women.

Globally, grandparents are increasingly raising their orphaned grandchildren. Parents are dying due to HIV/AIDs, drugs and violence. Grandmothers, already one of the most vulnerable group in terms of poverty, are relied upon to take care for children without adequate means.

One panelist stated that this global issue is gaining recognition across the world. In New York City, in particular, some low-income housing is designated for grandparents raising grandchildren on $10,000/year or below. The facility provides evening programs, counseling and building security. Grandmothers attend support group meetings that help them adjust to their new task as a primary caregiver and also to express their concerns with a supportive audience. One woman said, “I realize there are others just like me and I don’t have to be ashamed that my child wasn’t able to raise his child”.

A panel of experts on this global trend from New York and Tanzania also spoke. Rimas J. Jasin, Executive Director of Presbyterian Senior Services, discussed New York City’s attempts to alleviate poverty among grandparents raising grandchildren in some of the city’s most at-risk neighborhoods.

While discussing the slow evolution of social change and the changes necessary to strengthen the human rights of older persons, Modest J. Mero, Minister Plenipotentiary at the Permanent Mission of the United Republic of Tanzania to the United Nations said that “Development is a gradual process.”

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alzheimer’s Disease in Belize by Christy Kessens

During the summer of 2008 I had the opportunity to volunteer with the National Council on Ageing (NCA) in Belize, Central America. My time there consisted of developing educational brochures regarding Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and participating in an educational radio program that focused on older adult issues. Throughout the following year I maintained a relationship with the NCA and discovered that the Alzheimer’s disease information I had developed was welcomed with an overwhelming response. For the first time family members were learning the cause behind the unusual behaviors and personality changes experienced by their loved ones.

Aware of the positive impact additional Alzheimer’s disease education could have on those living in Belize, I chose to complete my Master’s degree program by interning with the National Council on Ageing. Between August 31 and October 9, 2009 I had the opportunity to participate in community outreach and interview family members who provide care for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

Using the resources provided by the NCA, I was able to interview several family caregivers while in Belize. They consisted of husbands, wives, adult children, granddaughters, grandsons, sons-in law, and daughters-in-law. They expressed feelings of guilt, helplessness, anger, and frustration. Most were eager to share their feelings and experiences while others refused to acknowledge that their loved one had a memory problem. Regardless of their situation, it was apparent that all of them were facing the challenges of caregiving and doing the best they could given their current situation.

The stigma associated with Alzheimer’s disease is very prevalent in Belize. The shame attached to this disease keeps family members from feeling comfortable talking openly about the challenges they are experiencing. It often leaves them feeling frustrated and alone. Through public television programs and local radio stations, we were able to provide caregivers the opportunity to learn about what they are going through, offered tools needed to help them provide appropriate cares for their family member, and hopefully helped them understand that they are not alone.

The purpose of this internship was to develop a support group that would provide assistance to family caregivers who support a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. After interviewing family members, visiting care facilities, and working on public awareness programs, it became apparent that the lack of available respite care services and the stigma attached to AD would hinder the development of a support group at this time. Instead it was determined that a workshop geared towards community advocates would have a greater impact on improving the lives of Alzheimer’s disease caregivers.

The 21 guests who attended the workshop included community nurses, psychiatric nurses, nursing professors from the local college, senior advocates, as well as a social worker and police officer. Over the course of the day participants learned about the impact Alzheimer’s disease has on the brain, took part in fun learning activities, and worked in small groups. We discussed behaviors experienced by AD patients and how to best support families who are struggling with these stressful situations. The group remained focused and open to learning, shared their own personal stories, and discussed ways to use the information gained when working with caregivers.

With the participants’ desire to learn and positive feedback received after the workshop, I believe the Educational Workshop for Community Advocates was successful and will ultimately benefit family caregivers. Working with the National Council on Ageing, I hope to return to Belize in 2011 to conduct additional workshops, allowing caregivers and community advocates the opportunity to continue learning about this debilitating disease.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How I Acquired a new Superpower at Global Action on Aging By Marium Abdul Sattar

From the first day I came to Global Action on Aging in April, I knew that I would be offering my services to help older persons by researching issues concerning them and advocating for their rights. What came as a surprise to me is that Global Action on Aging also helps the younger generations: the interns. The various research topics assigned to us, and the experiences we shared has enabled GAA to change our perspectives.

Finding articles on pensions and elder rights for the global aging website is one of my responsibilities. On my first day, not knowing what pensions were or how they worked presented a challenge for me. I soon realized that pensions support people in their old age when they no longer have a steady income and is often provided by an employer or insurer. Yet, that is just the icing on the cake since there are several more sources of pensions such as the state and unions. While preparing a report on pensions I learned that Germany was one of the first countries to pioneer this practice. In fact, Otto Von Bismarck suggested this idea as early as the 19th century in hopes that it would encourage Germans to work harder and create a stronger national economy.

Spending time at GAA gave me a certain superpower; it enabled me to see life from the perspective of an older person. After reading vast amounts of material about issues affecting older persons, I was able to learn about some of their primary concerns. I learned that society has the potential to be much friendlier to older persons, and that the word ‘elderly’ is a blanket term which categorizes people. For example, although it is used to describe a range of ages, it puts those aged 60 and above into a category despite the fact that it refers to a huge population; one which is ever-growing as the baby boomer generation begins to retire.

One of my most daunting experiences during my time at GAA occurred when I was near our office and I met an old woman who seemed lost. She also seemed to be tired from standing in the summer heat, and was unable to locate her home. When I asked her how I could help her she became more agitated and upset. I realized that I was not prepared for handling the situation at all! In hindsight, I learned that in this situation, it is best to seek out a police officer and inform him or her of the senior citizen who needs help to locate their place of residence. So I feel that we all have the potential to help our elders, as long as we know how to help them.

Another topic which I have researched is ‘Elder Rights’ which monitors some of the rights that older people enjoy but also, unfortunately, describes the infringements on their rights. At this time, I came across several articles that identify the point when a person needs some form of assisted care. One author indicated that immobility experienced during old age causes some people to lose weight due to their inability to even pick up heavy groceries or travel to the supermarket – something most people take for granted. I realize that this is the difficult side of aging, however, society usually only focuses on this bleak side of aging.

For example, did you know that by volunteering with older persons, you are more than likely to have a rewarding experience? Some have even termed it the ‘volunteer’s high.’ During my time at GAA, I have certainly learned to become more aware of my surroundings and older persons which might need help. On my way crossing a large intersection the other day, I noticed an old gentleman using a walker who was having trouble crossing the road in time before the traffic light changed from red to green. I saw through his eyes, and a seemingly normal road suddenly became a rocky path full of hazards. The gentleman said to me: “It feels like each of these potholes is out to get me.” Those who are shy don’t even need to speak to the older person crossing the street, but just accompany or be aware of them to make sure they are able to manage it.

By becoming more empathetic to the needs of older people, and seeing through their eyes, both old and young can benefit from these experiences. The younger generation can learn from the experience of older persons. We need to know how to help older persons and channel our superpower of empathy rather than sympathy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Six Months After the Earthquake, Older People in Haiti still need help.

Six months after the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January, older people need further help. As they are often affected by health issues, they can be as vulnerable as five-year old children. According Help Age International, around 800 000 Haitians, or about 7% of the population, are more than 60 years old. The number of older people affected by the earthquake is estimated at 200,000 persons. Many of them are homeless and lonely because they lost their close family members and relatives due to the earthquake or because they left Haiti. Some NGOs are reaching out to them.

One of the most important NGOs that is providing help to older people in Haiti is the charity “Mary’s Meals.” While its main focus remains feeding school children, the organization has extended its program to provide meals to additional vulnerable people, particularly old persons. Mary’s Meals provides them with a daily sit-down meal in schools during the week and gives them rations to take home for the weekend.

'’A lot of older people have been left unsupported because their families have moved away since the earthquake – they really need this support and we intend to continue to give it for the foreseeable future,’' stated Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, the founder of Mary’s Meals.

Older people make up a constituency who can help to rebuild Haiti. They know the country very well and are part of its history. The country should appeal to older people to plan its rebuilding.

Do you think that older persons could help re-build Hait? How could this be achieved? Have you had first-hand experience in a natural disaster? What happened? How did you manage this terrible challenge? Do you have skills that you could share with Haitians? If so, what are they?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Europe Tries to Change Pension Provisions

Many European Union members will try to change their pensions during the next few years. Most want to increase the retirement age to respond to increasing life expectancy.

French news reports have fixed on the daily struggle between the government and many of it citizens. In mid-June, the government unveiled its planned overhaul of the pay-as-you-go pension regime. It claimed that without major changes the system would run up deficits of 100 billion euros ($134.2 billion) by 2050. To avoid this cost, the government wants to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 years. In reaction, French labor organizations mobilized a nationwide strike. Hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets to protest. But the government announced that it would stick to its plan.

In Germany, the current retirement age is 65 years. The government wants to raise mandatory retirement age from 65 to 67 years. Between 2012 and 2035 the initial retirement age will go up by one month a year. The government also intends to enhance job prospects for older employees through a program called, “Initiative 50 Plus.”

In the United Kingdom, the Guardian (June 23, 2010) disclosed that the government had decided that “The state pension age for men was going to be raised to 66 as early as 2016.” Moreover, the government wants to raise the retirement age to 68 years to "be fair to the next generation of taxpayers." Women are already experiencing a gradual increase in their state pension age from 60 to 65 years by 2020.

Spain faces one of world’s most severe demographic challenges. The retirement age is currently 65 years for both men and women. The Socialist government adopted legislation to raise the retirement age to 67 years .The reform will be introduced gradually, beginning in 2013.

Under significant pressure from other European countries, the Greek government introduced pension system changes to reduce its debt. Currently, the retirement age is 65 years for men and 62 years for women. Soon Greek women’s retirement age will go to 65 years. In addition, the planned Greek changes would eliminate most early retirement schemes, merge pension funds and cap auxiliary pensions.

What are your worries at your age about retirement? What do you want for your support, for your children and grandchildren? Where does your government stand in allocating sufficient monies for its citizens’ retirement?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Older Persons and Computers by Susanne Jayawickreme

We are meeting my Mother via Skype. The retired lady on the right and her husband have also learned to Skype in the meantime.

My mother is 87 year old, born in 1923. She is still very active, lives in an apartment, still drives her car to do her shopping, plays in 2 bridge clubs and does an hour of long walking in various shopping malls every day.

Since my mother feels uneasy, walking in the forest nearby, she started driving to a different shopping mall every day independent of the weather condition. She takes a shopping cart to have support during her hour-long walk, enjoys being among people, and strolling through the shops and departments. She feels safe in the case that she fell or felt unwell all of a sudden etc, because there are so many people all over the place and security cameras, which ensure that help will be there for her immediately. Only heavy snow fall and really bad weather would keep her away from her daily shopping mall fun.

My mother played cards all her life. She used to play bridge in 3 different clubs until recently, but 2 clubs are left only as my mother survived the members of the other club. My mother loves playing cards. The youngest bridge player in my mother's 2 groups is 22 years junior to her. They all love my mother, her good humour, optimistic spirit and her playing skills.

But a couple of years ago, my sister and I discovered the most admirable surprise my mother had in store for us when I visited Germany. I have been living in Sri Lanka since 1994 and I go back home to Germany once a year. My mother can't cope with long distance flights any longer. Therefore we had to rely on phone calls, which were faint and full of awful noises more often than not. When I returned home a couple of years ago, after coming home from the airport, my sister pointed to a brand new laptop waiting to be used in the centre of the dining table. After the long warm welcome, my mother smiled with a twinkle in her eye and said that she bought the laptop the day before my arrival so that I could teach her the basics during my stay in Germany. But most important for her was to learn how to Skype and to use the camera so that we can see each other when we speak together when I am abroad again. To cut a long story short: My then 85 years young mother made myself, my sister and her 3 grand children feel like fools when we saw how quickly she picked up the functions after my brother-in-law installed all the programs. When I left she even played cards online and she googles everything she wants to know now. Her grandchildren help out immediately when the laptop crashes, which hardly happens.

My mother and I enjoy seeing each other via skype.

My sister and her family take their laptops with them when they travel in order to be in visible touch with my mother. When my husband and I have visitors at home and where ever we travel we Skype with my mom, so that she can join us and be with us as often as possible. As my mother puts it, "The only thing missing is that we can't hug and touch each other." But be assured of all our flying kisses circling throughout cyberspace.

With her knowledge of computing my mother solves her homework she has to do for her memory training class. She googles and also skypes with me to solve word puzzles and together we crack other hard brain teasers. Her memory jogging friends call her to get the results and you guess it: her group is doing very well!

I would like to not only encourage older people to start computing, but also to get the entire families involved in the computer fun with grandparents and other older relatives. It could be such fun for several generations of the family. But most importantly, it helps to fight the loneliness of old people, as they can't move around like they used to, and due to the natural effects of old age which leave them with less and less friends to talk to.

My husband talks with my mother. A German friend looks on. He and his wife retired a long time ago and learned to Skype as soon as they returned to Germany.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Neighborhood Platform by Aukje de Vries

The Hague, which is the third largest city in the Netherlands, has a number of organizations, which have a contract with the municipality to perform community work. Some of them are supposed to work in the neighborhood where I live.

My neighborhood is a residential area, where most inhabitants own their house or their apartment. There are few rented houses. There are several so called “service flats” which are suitable for older persons who need some assistance but still can cope independently. They are privately run and fairly expensive. The inhabitants of the neighborhood are mostly well educated and, when working, have relatively high incomes, but in spite of that no less than 18% of its inhabitants have been found to be poor. The capital of this category is in their house, but their income is low. My neighborhood has the largest percentage of old people in the entire city, but because the average income of the people in this area is relatively high, the City of The Hague does not think it necessary to give many social facilities to this area. In fact, as for accommodation, staff for social activities, and public transport, it is an underprivileged area, although the city government does not think so.

Some time ago, the community organizations tried to set up a forum or platform to hear what the citizens should like to see happen in this neighborhood. Right from the beginning there were very few ordinary citizens present, most of the participants in the meeting were representatives of organizations such as: the Neighborhood Association, some volunteer organizations, some private care homes, home care organizations, secondary schools, a sports club, etc.

Today there is another meeting of the platform and although I have no specific function in the neighborhood, I will attend, hoping to hear interesting news or to help getting some social activities started. As it turns out the city has discovered that many older people are lonely and the community organizations have been asked to do something about it.

As usual there are new participants so we all introduce ourselves briefly and then the floor is given to the social worker of the hospital, who is new in our midst.

The hospital has decided to pay extra attention to older people. This is good news. It has established a special out-patient department for older people. The social worker tells us he has come into contact with some older people in a rather desperate situation, who have no contacts, are not known by any agency and therefore have not had any help in an earlier stage, before their situation had become so bad. He regrets that the hospital processes patients without paying any attention to their social circumstances. As soon as the medical treatment has been finished, they are discharged.

Today there are two representatives of secondary schools in the meeting. Their students have to do a social internship and the teachers are trying to find placements for them, which is not easy because there are so many of them. The care homes can use some. In the previous months a group of high school students had given computer lessons to seniors and this worked out very well. Most seniors were quite pleased and the students did well, even though they were sometimes amazed that a few seniors were exclusively interested in one particular kind of information, e.g. about a certain type of car, without any further interest about working with the internet. It was also disappointing for the students that some of the seniors did not turn up any more after a few lessons. The school thinks this is an interesting project. They want to give a follow-up course to the first group, start with a new group and write a manual for seniors.

There is also some discussion about getting seniors in the neighborhood to take their evening meal in one of the care homes and making some of the facilities of the home available to a wider circle of users. The staff member of this particular home tells us this is not her competency. There is one person in the group who obviously is involved somehow with this home. She tells she has made suggestions to the management and tried to get in touch with the responsible person, but she hasn’t been able to reach anyone. She has finally given up. The staff member who is present again is not very helpful to her. This is a clear example of bureaucracy at work.

Finally the chair of the meeting, a staff member of the agency for community organization, brings up the issue of loneliness among older people. It is known that many of the older people, living alone, are very lonesome but it is characteristic for the people of this neighborhood that they don’t reach out, nor ask for help and so they remain lonesome.

This issue has been discussed in earlier meetings, but we end up with the same useless conclusion as before: organizations cannot do anything as long as the lonesome people don’t ask for help. Ways to reach out to them, such as information about what the organizations can offer, does not help. The so-called contact which is called club 55+ has many members but their activities do not succeed in reaching the lonesome or forging new contacts between members. I have suggested for the community organizations to call on older persons personally by paying a visit to them at home and inviting them to form a small group with others who have similar interests. They could go and eat together in one of the care homes. I think it is the anonymity of the offer that organizations make, which keeps people from using it. When I myself consider going to a nearby care home to use the restaurant, but I have to go there by myself, I prefer to stay home and do my own cooking. I think the organizations will have to find a more personal method to approach the older inhabitants and help them to form contacts with friends of similar ages and who have similar interests.

People in this area may be well educated, but that does not necessarily mean they have great social skills.

Do you have the opportunity to interact with your neighbours? How can you get younger residents to interact with older persons in your community? Should students be obliged to fulfill a school requirement to spend time visiting nursing home residents? If so, how can more schools adopt this policy?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Day in Leiden by Aukje de Vries

My friend Cora, who lives in Amsterdam, and I decided to meet in Leiden, halfway between Amsterdam and The Hague. We are going to spend the day there and make plans for a trip towards the end of the summer. Just after having left the station we noticed a brand new tourist office. Because it may have useful information we decide on a short stop there. We have questions: Are there any good expositions or interesting walks to places visitors do not usually get to see? The staff gave us extensive information about Leiden, some nice brochures and an explanation, as if we had never visited the city before. The tourist office also sells products that might interest tourists. We resist this temptation. Outside we look at each other. Neither of us dared to tell the lady in the tourist office that we know Leiden quite well. Both of us studied there in the late fifties and lived there for at least six years.

It is a nice day, although quite fresh. The best option seems to be to go to the botanical gardens. Leiden has, right behind the main university building, a beautiful botanical garden with many plants from tropical regions. On the way Cora showed me an almshouse. Leiden has no less than 35 of them, all advertised as places that tourists can visit. Churches or rich people started these house hundreds of years ago to house poor elderly women.

In most cases you enter them through an outer building admitting you to courtyard around which small houses are built. Usually they are not only very pretty with a well kept garden, but also very quiet and secluded. We look around and try to figure out how large the houses are. We look into one and see that it is really tiny. Its inhabitant obviously is not at home. A young man, leaving one of the other houses, asks us if we need information. He tells us this is one of the smallest apartments; the others are about double this size. He has lived here for a number of years as both students and young workers are now living in these houses. As a young person, he expects to leave in a few years. At that point, he then will be able to afford a larger house. Someone else move into his little house.

When we reach the botanical gardens it is time for coffee. We take our time to catch up with each other. In the botanical gardens there are leftovers of an orchid exhibition. There are orchids everywhere of all sizes and colours. I regret not having brought my camera, they are so beautiful. Having marveled at the beautiful, exotic plants in the hothouses, we walk through the garden and enjoy the pretty blossoms and the flowers that are already in bloom. Cora points out where she lived while studying at Leiden University. We can see it from where we are standing. She lived in Leiden for a few years before I arrived. We got to know each other later when both of us lived in Amsterdam. When we leave the gardens it is high time for a lunch in a nearby café. It is too cold to sit outside. During lunch we discuss whether we can go on another vacation together in the late summer or early fall. Last year we went to St. Petersburg and it worked out fine. What can we do this year? Cora forgot to bring her diary so she does not know exactly which dates she has available. Both of us have already have commitments for that period so it will be not be easy to find a time that suits both of us. There are four alternative destinations, all of them in Southern Europe, that we might like to visit. But first the dates must be settled.

Upon leaving the café we see another almshouse. This one has a plaque with information. It was established in 1650 by Eva van Hoogeveen. It was meant for chaste, elderly women. They were obliged to wash themselves at least once a month. Difficult to imagine!!

The afternoon is half gone when we leave this almshouse and walk slowly in the direction of the station. We pass the Frisian baker that was in place in the fifties. They still bake bread on the spot, including specialties from Friesland, a Northern province of The Netherlands.

We end our day at Leiden with a walk through another historic are that was less accessible in the period when we lived in Leiden. On our way we read some more facts about Leiden’s history from the plaques placed on some buildings. We feel very satisfied with our lovely day in Leiden, but our holiday plans for the future still remain to be made.

Questions: Do you sometimes travel with a friend? What are some problems you’ve encountered on an excursion such as the one Aujke took? What were the successes? Is it always better to travel with someone? If so, why?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Les amis de mes amis by Aukje de Vries

I have a friend, Jean-Marc, in Paris. We got to know each other in the sixties. Both of us followed a summer course on American Politics in Nice. It was an interesting course in a nice setting with quite a bit of free time. Jean-Marc and I spent our free time going to concerts and participating in excursions. We have kept in touch since then. He became a diplomat and went on missions abroad. During this time we lost touch with each other, but later when he had settled in Paris, we resumed our friendship. His life had taken a nasty turn. In a car accident he had lost his eyesight. In the meantime his widowed mother, moved to Paris to take care of him and run the household. Fortunately he kept a job with the Foreign Ministry until his recent retirement. A few years ago his mother died. However, while still living, she had recruited a number of helpers and managed to make new arrangements so that he would get all the help he needed. He is living independently and completely in command of his situation which, I think, is an enormous achievement. Remarkably, he has kept up many friendships dating from the different phases in his life including many contacts with other diplomats he had met abroad. His circle of friends is extensive and varied and he keeps in touch. From time to time I go to Paris to see him. So this spring I also planned a brief visit to Paris.

I found him well and we had a good visit. He always tells me a lot about French politics and the world situation, Since I have to think hard before I have formulated a decent phrase in French, he talks a lot more than I do.

It was just the right time of year to visit Paris. Splendid weather, a clear blue sky, many trees in bloom and tulips and other flowers all over the place. I never realized how many smaller and larger parks Paris has. The city is beautifully laid out and it was an absolute joy to be there and to walk and visit familiar places, that bring back memories of earlier times.

But there was an extra bonus this year. Shortly before my departure I wrote to an Australian friend mentioning that I would spend a few days in Paris. I received an immediate reply from her telling me that she was in France and would be in Paris with her sister at the same time I would be there. Could we meet? Yes, of course we could. We arranged to meet at a museum.

Jean-Marc had told me that he had planned to invite some friends for dinner for one of the evenings I would be there. However, his friends were out of town and could not come. Then he suggested that he invite my friend Jane and her sister Nancy instead; they agreed to come.

As planned we met at the museum in the early afternoon. Jane and I wanted to talk. We spent quite some time over coffee, chatting and catching up, while Nancy visited the museum. It was great to exchange all the news and discuss some common concerns.

The visit with Jean-Marc turned out to be a great success. Jean-Marc and Nancy had quite a lot in common and talked very easily.

There is a saying in French: “Les amis de mes amis sont mes amis.” That is to say, the friends of my friends are my friends. Jean-Marc certainly practiced it and we all had a wonderful evening.

Do you have old friends that you look up to visit when you travel ? Have they changed ? If so, how ? How has life treated them ? How are they approaching their own old age ?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A day in Leiden by Aukje de Vries

My friend Cora, who lives in Amsterdam, and I have decided to meet in Leiden, halfway between Amsterdam and The Hague. We will spend the day there and try to make some plans for a trip at the end of the summer. Just after having left the station, we see a brand new tourist office. It may have useful information so we decide on a short stop there. Are there any good expositions or interesting walks to places visitors do not usually get to see? We get extensive information about Leiden, some nice brochures and an explanation as if we never visited the city before. The tourist office also sells products but we resist this temptation. Once outside we look at each other. Neither of us dared to say to the lady in the office that we know Leiden quite well. Both of us studied there in the late fifties and lived there for at least six years. It is a nice day, although quite fresh. The best option seems to be to go to the botanical gardens. Leiden has, right behind the main university building, a beautiful botanical garden with many plants from tropical regions. On the way Cora shows me an almshouse. Leiden has no less than 35 of them, which are now advertised as places that tourists can visit. Rich people or churches founded them hundreds of years ago to house poor elderly women.In most cases you enter them through a building and then you reach a courtyard around which small houses are built. Usually they are not only very pretty with a well kept garden, but also very quiet and secluded. We look around and try to figure out how large the houses are. We look into one and see it is really tiny. Its inhabitant obviously is not home. A young man, leaving one of the other houses, asks us if we need information. He tells us this is one of the smallest apartments; the others are about double this size. He has now lived here for a number of years. The inhabitants are both students and young workers. He came in as a young worker and expects to leave in a few years. He then will be able to afford a larger house so it will be time to let someone else have his little house.

When we reach the botanical gardens it is time for coffee; we take our time to catch up with each other. In the botanical gardens there are leftovers of an orchid exhibition. There are orchids everywhere of all sizes and colours. I regret not having brought my camera, they are so beautiful. Having marveled at the beautiful, exotic plants in the hothouses we walk through the garden and enjoy the pretty blossoms and the flowers that are already in bloom. Cora points out where she lived while studying at Leiden University.

We can see it from where we are. She lived in Leiden a few years before me. We got to know each other later when both of us lived in Amsterdam . When we leave the gardens it is high time for a lunch in a nearby café. It is too cold to sit outside, unfortunately. During lunch we try to decide if we can go on another vacation together in the late summer or early fall. Last year we went to St Petersburg together and this worked out fine. What can we do this year? Cora forgot to bring her diary so she does not know exactly which dates she has available. Both of us have already quite a few commitments for that period. It will be not be easy to find a time that suits both of us. There are four alternative destinations, all of them in Southern Europe that we might like to visit. But first the dates should be settled. Upon leaving the café we see another almshouse. This one has a plaque with information. It was established in 1650 by Eva van Hoogeveen. It was meant for chaste, elderly women and while living there they were obliged to wash themselves at least once a month. Difficult to imagine!!

It is already halfway the afternoon when we leave this almshouse and slowly walk in the direction of the station. We pass the Frisian baker that was already there in the fifties. They still bake the bread on the spot, including specialties from Friesland (a Northern province of The Netherlands ). We end our day at Leiden with a walk through another historic area that was less accessible in the period when we lived in Leiden. On our way we learn some more facts about the history of Leiden from the plaques that are on some of the buildings. We are very satisfied with a lovely day in Leiden, but our holiday plans still remain to be made.

Many older persons, like Marja and Cora, find themselves living alone. Do you team up with a friend to travel or enjoy the local sights? Tell us about it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Strengthening Older People’s Rights: Towards a UN Convention

Despite the fact that older women and men have the same rights as everyone else, older women and men around the world face age discrimination and are denied their rights on a regular basis. The world is ageing fast and age discrimination is increasing. This discrimination is completely unacceptable. Older women’s well being is doubly jeopardized when they are subjected to both age and gender discrimination.

Existing human rights instruments do not provide adequate legal protection of the rights of older people. In practice too, older women and men’s rights are not being adequately addressed or protected through the existing human rights system.

The time has come for a special rapporteur and a convention on the rights of older people. These new human rights instruments would help change attitudes towards older women and men and increase their visibility at both national and international levels. A new convention would also clarify government responsibilities towards older women and men, improve accountability and provide a framework for policy and decision making.

In collaboration with eight other international organizations, Global Action on Aging presents this new publication entitled “
Strengthening Older People’s Rights: Towards a UN Convention.” This publication was produced to strengthen understanding and awareness of the need for a special rapporteur and convention on the rights of older people. It aims to provide the arguments and tools for engaging people – from older women and men themselves to civil society organizations to government officials – across the globe in debate about older people’s rights and the role of a convention and special rapporteur. It also suggests ways in which individuals and civil society organizations can promote these new human rights instruments in their countries.

As civil society organizations, we have an important role to play in ensuring that older women and men shape, and are part of, the discussion about their rights. We hope that this publication will help you facilitate their inclusion in this discussion.

For further information, please contact Global Action on Aging at

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Aging, Dementia, and Driving. When to Turn in the Keys?

A new study by the American Academy of Neurology has issued guidelines to help determine when people with Alzeiher's Disease and Dementia should stop driving. “While some people with dementia can still drive safely for a time, nearly all people with dementia will eventually have to give up driving,” said lead guideline author Donald J. Iverson, MD.

However, as Paul Span writes in the New York Times, these guidelines are not as clear cut as we would hope they would be. While the study states that those with Dementia will ultimate have to stop driving, it also cites many studies that show those with mild dementia can often still pass driivng tests.

So do we worry about drivers with dementia, or not?

The researchers recommend that caregivers and family members should "trust their instincts." If the person with Alzeheimer's Disease seems to be showing some of the warning signs that the study presents, then they should bring it up with the person's doctor.

Dementia isn't the only issue to think about with aging drivers. Weakened vision, hearing, and slower reaction speeds are all normal effects of aging in the healthiest people. By 2030 the US will have an estimated two-thirds more older drivers on the road than we do today. How do we prepare for this change?

One way to prepare is to re-test older drivers to refresh their skills and find those drivers who are no longer safe to drive. The AARP offers
an online driving course for older drivers. Taking this course can help older drivers refresh their knowledge and skills, as well as receive discounts on their car insurance rates.

The laws on retesting older drivers differ by state, but very few require seniors to take a road test. Some states require seniors to come into the DMV for an vision test, and others allow seniors to send in verified documentation of an eye exam.

And then what of the seniors who fail their tests are deemed unfit to drive? Limiting the use of a car can severely restrict older people's ability to get around, especially in rural or remote places. They can't necessarily negotiate a long walk, and
the limits of public transportation can be too cumbersome to bear. This means that basic means for living, such as visits to the doctor, grocery store, bank, etc are all limited by lack of transportation.

There are senior-specific public options that are meant to help seniors get around at a low cost. New York's federally-mandated Access-A-Ride is one option, but this program can be glitchy, with long waiting times.

With driving or public transportation, getting around for the older population seems to be troublesome either way. If we are going to be more stringent on limiting senior drivers, then we must couple this with expanding public transportation options that are both convenient and affordable.

Monday, April 12, 2010

What is our neighborhood magazine for? by Aukje de Vries

The neighborhood where I live has a neighborhood association which is open to all inhabitants. The association also has a magazine, which appears 6 times a year.

According to the statutes of the association the final responsibility for this magazine rests with the board of the association. There is an editorial committee and there are also internal rules which regulate the rights and responsibilities of the editors of the magazine. Now the statutes are a little different than the internal rules, the latter giving the editors slightly more rights. But in the end it is clear that the board has the final say about the magazine. A few months ago we learned there had been a conflict between the board and the editorial committee. The editors had resigned and the board had taken over the magazine.

The first issue with the board as editors was a great improvement in my eyes. The magazine as it used to be was printed on glossy paper, had lots of advertisements of local shop keepers and other independent agents such as lawyers, therapists, real estate brokers and the like. The magazine usually contained very little news of any importance, it was mostly filled with articles about a local shopkeeper whose shop celebrated its 25th anniversary, new trees planted in a street, the problems with sea gulls, which come into the city in the summer and make lots of noise, the history of a building somewhere in the neighborhood, an inhabitant who had written a book about a historic figure, but hardly any news worth knowing. The best read were the few pages filled by the board, where board members informed us of their activities regarding municipal decisions concerning traffic and construction and their negotiations with the city government on these issues.

In recent years the municipalities have taken on considerably more responsibilities for social services and community development. I should like to read about this in our magazine as well as about the many social and cultural organizations which must be active here, but about which I know next to nothing. But none of it. I found the magazine extremely dull and hardly worth reading. In previous meetings of the neighborhood association I had heard some criticism of the magazine, but there were always other members who immediately came to the fore saying it was an excellent production. I never understood why. Now the editorial committee has resigned, but a group of members has requested a special meeting of the neighborhood association to discuss the conflict.

I went to the meeting because I want to support the board and ask for more news in the magazine on social issues.

I don’t think I have ever attended a meeting of the association with so many persons present. There are barely enough seats. The President of the association tells us that the meeting will be chaired by an independent lawyer, if the meeting agrees. The situation is explained. The conflict is a classical conflict between the board of the association and the editors where the board has disagreed with some of the articles of the editors. The editors claimed independence and the maintenance of journalistic standards. The conflict has already existed for quite a while and at a certain stage help has been asked from an independent mediator. Without success.

The chair suggests that we do not go into all the details of the conflict; the positions are clear, it is important that the conflict be solved and the magazine can be continued.

Most of the persons who want the floor nonetheless ask for ever more details about the conflict and the mediation. Although the mediation was supposed to be strictly confidential, we are even informed of what has been going on in that process. When I try to take the floor and want to say that as a reader I am not very pleased with the contents of the magazine, others got a chance to speak first. They praised the editorial committee saying it did such a fine job, we have such a wonderful magazine, possibly the best of the entire city. Applause.

When I finally get the floor the speaker before me has again spoken very positively about the magazine, so I react maybe a bit too directly saying I do not think at all the quality of the magazine is good. I told them that I think it is rather poor and does not reflect what is going on in the neighborhood. I want to read about social issues and about the consequences for our neighborhood of the Act on Social Development. What plans does the local government have for our neighborhood and what do the citizens want? Murmurs but no applause. Someone says: “At least a clear opinion”. It is evident that the majority of the people don’t share my opinion. The meeting continues and closing time of the hall (10.00 p.m.) approaches.

The chair proposes to adjourn the meeting to give both parties, the board and the editorial committee, time to decide how to end the conflict. They get five minutes. They leave the hall and come back 15 minutes later. The outcome of the deliberations is thatthe editorial committee, which has already resigned, will get a big thank you in the next meeting of the association. I am surprised they reached this conclusion so quickly, but agree with the solution.

Next day I get a phone call from Geraldine, a highly qualified and active senior, who is, like me, interested in social issues. She says: I am glad you brought up the Act on Social Development. Geraldine too, feels that our neighborhood magazine was not at all informative. She tells me some stories about the editorial committee. Their policy was to represent the neighborhood as healthy, wealthy and happy in order to make the local shop keepers and entrepreneurs advertise, thinking the inhabitants are their ideal clientele. Therefore the editors did not want to publish any articles on poverty, loneliness, lack of care or other social problems. In the mean time the committee has built up considerable reserves out of the advertisements. According to Geraldine the committee had brought all its friends and relations to the meeting to speak favourably about them; that is why most people made such positive remarks.

Why don’t you write an article for the magazine, Geraldine asks. Because I do not know what is going on socially in this neighborhood, that is precisely what I want the magazine for.

Just wait, I’ll come back to you, Geraldine says. And, knowing Geraldine, I am sure she will. We’ll see.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Clairy by Aukje de Vries

Clairy Polak, a woman in her mid fifties anchors a News show called Nova, which is on public TV six evenings a week after the 10 o’clock news bulletin. A very nice woman with wavy grey hair (hurrah for someone who does not dye her hair!), she’s an excellent interviewer. Interviewees cannot get away leaving her questions unanswered. She knows her subjects; she asks very informed questions about any issue under discussion, however complicated, such as the economic situation. With a charming smile on her face, she keeps probing.

I won’t explain to you how public broadcasting works in The Netherlands, it is too complicated. Let it suffice to tell you that it will be reorganized. Another show, News Hour, will replace Nova. Clairy will not be in this programme.I hate to see her go. It will be a loss to public TV and Clairy does not deserve this. Is it because she is an older woman? There are far too few older women on Dutch TV. I Googled her name and read many comments that label her a leftist and therefore want to see her go. I don’t agree; I think her interviews are fair and objective and meet high journalistic standards.

What can we do? I ask my Older Women’s Group: shall we start an e-mail action? All of us want Clairy to stay. I am advised to first find out if Clairy herself would agree with our action. The broadcasting organisation which employs her, says we need not bother, she will be happy if we do so.

So I prepared a message for organisations responsible for the new programme, saying “Clairy must stay.” We sent copies to most everyone we knew and who might be interested in the issue. A nice result is that some people from whom I have not heard in a long time not only forward our message to the broadcasting organisations, but also come back to me with greetings. Others tell me they will ask other organisations to take action as well.

It is not possible to trace how many e-mails have resulted from our action. However, soon we hear the news comes that Clairy will be an interviewer on the new programme. This new assignment is really more along her line than being the anchor woman. In the media it is said this is because of the reactions of the public and of a TV show. Do they mean us? Did the pay attention to our reactions? We will never know, but Clairy, an older woman and an excellent role model, will stay. And that is what we want.

Have you tried to influence public opinion in a similar way? What were your results?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

“Grand Mère”: Voice of an Older Haitian Woman after the Earthquake

Roudeline Michel filmed this short documentary sponsored by Ciné Institute that follows Yayi, an eighty-eight year old Haitian, after the earthquake in Haiti. Part of her house collapsed during the earthquake. She survived and was reunited with her very worried daughter and grandchildren.

Yayi recalls how frightened she was when the ground moved. In the aftermath of the earthquake, Haitians feared possible tsunami. Yayi and her family climbed up to prison building and found transportation to the airport where they stayed in the rain. Yayi’s grandson carried her part of the way. Unfortunately, this traumatic experience had some negative consequences on her already weakened health.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Travels to the South by Aukje De Vries

A Short Break

March can be nice, but it often is still quite cold; warm spring days usually come later. This time of year I need new energy and I like to go to a sunny place. I asked Martje, my friend from Rotterdam with whom I often travel, whether she might like to join me for a trip to a Southern country. But she only had a few days during which she had no commitments, so it was not worthwhile to go all the way to Italy or Spain. We decided to spend three days in Sluis, a small town in the southwest of the country only a mile from the Belgian border.

The hotel I had booked looked quite impressive and it had a Casino!

We arrived late and went out to discover Sluis by night. It looked like a nice town. It is said to have many “coffee shops” for drug users from Belgium and France, but if they were there, they must be well hidden.

We spent one of the two full days we had in Sluis visiting some small towns in the region. Aardenburg turned out to be a town with some lovely old buildings like a gate and gabled houses but so small…We, big city dwellers are no longer used to houses built on this scale; it looked almost unreal. There was also a large church, which had been restored after WWII.

The next town we visited was a new town. We asked some people in the local bookstore why it was new: they told us the town had been completely devastated towards the end of WWII.

No need to spend much time there, like many new towns it lacked character. We then went into the direction of the beach, had a walk in the dunes and saw a nature reserve, which was a bit disappointing. It had a bird sanctuary and we gazed at the many storks that were there. After a visit to a Belgian sea side resort where we had tea and were offered several goodies, unlike what we are used to in The Netherlands. In the process, I lost - bad luck - the filling of a tooth. We returned to Sluis.

In the evening we had a very tasty dinner at the hotel. We were amazed by one of our fellow-guests, a young man, sitting at the table behind us. Cell phone in hand, lap top on the table and all through the dinner he was making calls and using the computer. It is funny, but people, when using the telephone, speak more loudly than normal. We couldn’t quite understand what he was saying, but noticed that he hardly took any time to enjoy his dinner.

The next morning “Mr. Office” was at breakfast as well and working as hard as the night before. This time he also used the hotel’s fax. He ran in and out of the breakfast room with sheets of paper and telephoned quite loudly again. Why? Is work really so important that it never stops? Can any (public) place be used as an office, these days?

Our second day we mostly spent in Belgium visiting several coastal towns (we noticed they differed quite a bit in character) and then we had our last day to take a leisurely trip back home and see several more small towns, among them one that had been especially recommended to us. This town, Groede, was well preserved and had a nice circle of old and not so old houses around a very large church. We wanted to see the inside of the church, but it turned out to be under reconstruction. It looked awful and the workmen who were busy inside told us to get out of there fast. We had had unusually nice weather during our days in Sluis, but on the way home it started to rain. We had been lucky. The trip had been a nice break.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Men’s Emancipation by Aukje de Vries

The Dutch political landscape has changed considerably this week because of three surprising events. We just have had our local elections and in less than 3 months time there will be national elections.

The national elections became necessary because the cabinet fell due to the fact that the two largest parties in the cabinet: the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the Labour Party (PvdA)
had had many disagreements over the past three years and disagreed again about keeping the Dutch army in Uruzgan. The PvdA had always said that 2010 was the final year of the Dutch presence in Uruzgan and they did not want to break that promise, whereas the CDA Minister of Foreign Affairs had informed NATO that the Dutch were willing to stay longer. This was unacceptable to the PvdA and they left the Coalition. Over the years it had become clear that the two leaders did not get along very well and had difficulties making compromises time and again.

The Board of the CDA immediately after the fall of the cabinet appointed the Prime Minister of the fallen cabinet as their number one for the coming elections. If the CDA would again become the largest party after the elections, the CDA could form the new cabinet and it would only be logical that this man would again become the Prime Minister.

There were no signs that the leader of the Labour Party intended to give up his position and his party wanted him to stay as well. If both of them remained their party’s leader, it would be virtually impossible for the CDA and the PvdA to collaborate in the next cabinet. Without their collaboration it might become inevitable that the anti-Islam party of Mr. Wilders would become part of the governing coalition, a situation which is likely to be very bad for our country, in the opinion of a majority including me.

The first surprise of the past week was that the Minister of Transport, one of the most promising members of the CDA and a possible successor of the Prime Minister, declared to leave politics. At age 36 he wanted to have more time for his private life and he said that he couldn’t bear the thought of finding himself alone and lonesome at the age of 45 or 50. He and his partner wanted to have more time to start a family.

The second surprise was of a different nature. The founder of the LibDems (D66) passed away at the age of 78. He was a visionary politician and an extremely talented speaker. He was someone who changed the Dutch political landscape. The present D66 leader told on TV he had had until quite recently frequent contacts with him. Alas, D66 and Dutch politics will have to do without him.

The third surprise was the most amazing. Wouter Bos, the leader of the Labour Party called a press conference and announced that he had decided to resign for family reasons. He has three very young children and he wanted to have more time to see them grow up. This came totally unexpected. I heard it while I was at a meeting with my older women’s group and we were shocked by the news. All of us had a very high opinion of Wouter Bos. But what was more surprising still was that he had found a man who was ready to succeed him as a party leader if the party would elect him. This man, Job Cohen, until that moment the burgomaster of Amsterdam, is held in high esteem all over the country (except by Mr. Wilders, who thinks he is too soft on migrants). Mr. Cohen has shown in Amsterdam that he can bring people together instead of driving them apart. I think this has been an incredibly wise move of Wouter Bos, by which he has done a great service to our country. The future of this divided country now looks better than it did before.

But isn’t it incredible that two top male politicians decided to give up their position for family reasons? Have we ever heard this before? Finally men’s emancipation?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Interview with June Mallon and Elizabeth Sclater during the Commission on the Status of Women by Magali Girod

“Only a few Side Events mentioned older women during the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) this year,” June Mallon observed as she sat down in the easy chair at Global Action on Aging. Despite their active role as caregivers, workers and peace makers, older women’s issues do not attract a wide audience during the CSW in New York. Only a few Side Events organized by NGOs or UN Agencies took on a life long perspective in their analysis and examples.

To bring more visibility to older women’s issues, Global Action on Aging interviewed two remarkable older European women who are very active in their communities. June Mallon represents the Older Women’s Network Northern Ireland and Elizabeth Sclater is a member of the Older Women’s Network Europe.

Northern Ireland: experience on the ground

In Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, where June comes from, many older people live in isolation. The long conflict in Ireland affected every household and older women were the ones keeping families together. They had lived through the Second World War and used their experience through that difficult time as a way to deal with their current pain in a more constructive and rational way than younger generations.

In the 90's some older women belonged to clubs or church groups but many did not have a forum to turn to and lacked support. The Older Woman's Network N. Ireland was created with funds sourced by N.I.W.E.P. and organized to network and empower older women within their own communities.

Some communities formed their own forums, met once a month where they could state their needs. Participants talked about physical health, mental health, grief, isolation, lack of income and food. Government and policy makers did not recognize older persons' value and hard work at that time. Older people were stereotyped. After some resistance, local councils finally changed their politics and included older people in the system and collaborated actively with the forum. The administration began to hear the voice of older people. The councils now work in close collaboration with the forum to raise awareness of older persons’ needs. June Mallon is an active member in the community as a volunteer, in addition to taking care of her family.

Beijing + 15: the situation of older women

In 1995, Elizabeth Sclater attended the Beijing International Conference on Women. NGO participants were full of energy and included older women’s issues in their work. “Women of all ages” were mentioned several times in the Beijing Platform for Action.

Women around the world, both young and old, contribute every day to the economic growth of their country, even if they are doing unpaid work. Many women continue to work beyond retirement age. Often they suffer neglect, discrimination and abuse. Unfortunately, these facts are rarely mentioned and discussed, including during international meetings like the CSW.

What can NGOs do to change this situation? Elizabeth Sclater suggested that NGOs focusing on aging issues and those with a strong focus on women should collaborate at the international and national levels. International conventions or treaties should also be used to bring more visibility to older women. To increase the effectiveness of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations Against Women, NGOs are encouraging the CEDAW Committee to adopt a general recommendation on older women.

Elizabeth Sclater sees this as a major positive development for older women’s rights. Furthermore, when governments present their 4-year progress report to the Committee, NGOs representing older people should take the opportunity to work collaboratively on the national NGO shadow report, by including data, examples and analysis on the situation of older women in their country. The CEDAW process also allows for shadow reports on themed issues and HelpAge International has taken the lead in providing the Committee with reports on older women in Tanzania (2008) and at forthcoming CEDAW sessions.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reaction to "Will the Boomers Be Any Different?" by Isabel Nicholson

As a researcher at Global Action on Aging, I spend a lot of time learning about the "hard stuff:" the political, economic, and health issues that pertain to the world's aging population. However, in my research I often come across the more subtle issues, such as the cultural trends of the aging and differences between the older generations.

Last week I read this New York Times article that discusses some of the more subtle issues within the aging population and thought some of the points would be great to discuss here. The author, Paula Span, writes of the US Depression era 80+ year olds, and the differences between how they are aging and how the baby boomers will age in the next 20 years.

She asks, "In 20 or so years, when we baby boomers enter the ranks of the “old-old” ourselves, will we be any different?" For her, the answer is yes. Her "boomer" generation is one that has lived on personal gratification and will be dramatically less resistant to the idea of paying for assisted care and moving to retirement communities in order to make the transition into old age more comfortable.

But, she writes, "We’re all speculating, because the fact is that as a society and as individuals, we’re facing unprecedented longevity, and nobody quite knows how these changes will play out. Perhaps we’ll be just as unwilling to acknowledge infirmity, just as stubborn about defying our children’s entreaties."

As some one in her 20s with baby-boomer parents in their 60s, I cannot yet tell what they will be like as they enter their old age. At this point, they're focused on enjoying their upcoming retirement. Maybe in the future they'll resist my pleas to go into assisted care, or maybe they'll indulge in all of the old-age resources and comforts they have access to.

I ask all readers, young, "booming," and older people alike-
what do you think? To the younger- are you starting to see these issues arise with your parents as they enter retirement age? To the boomers- what decisions have you made (or have yet to make) about your old age and the possibility of assisted living? And if you are in the throws of old age- what differences do you see between your generation and the one after?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Local Elections (2) by Aukje de Vries

The Day of the Elections

Today it is finally the day of our local elections at the Hague. This year they are exceptionally interesting for two reasons. One reason is that on the national level, the cabinet fell two weeks ago and in June there are going to be national elections. The local elections, in which local chapters of most national parties participate, are considered as a predictor of the outcomes nationally. Especially during the last week we have seen quite a lot of our national politicians in the media. The second reason is that the PVV (Party for Liberty) is taking part in two municipalities, one of them being The Hague, where I live. The PVV is the party led by Mr. Geert Wilders, who once was a member of the conservative party but who broke away and began a new party, the PVV. The major issue of this party is to combat Islam. At present he has 9 seats out of 150 in the National Parliament, but according to recent opinion polls he is good for 24 to 27 seats if elections were held now.

What will happen in The Hague? The two policy measures the PVV candidates in The Hague have proposed is to forbid headscarves (worn by many Muslim women) in all public buildings and in any organizations or agencies that receive a subsidy from the municipal government.

The second proposal is to drastically cut back or stop municipal subsidies to social and cultural organizations such as the Symphony Orchestra of The Hague. In this country we have less commercial sponsoring and more government participation in the financing of social and cultural institutions than in, for instance, the USA. Taking away the subsidies from the orchestra and other cultural institutions would probably mean the end of them and that would be a serious loss to the city.

Mr. Wilders is very good at making sweeping statements and attracting a lot of attention from the media, so we have seen and heard much more of him and about him than is justified. It is believed that one of the reasons why he gets such high scores is that those citizens who feel dissatisfied with the government and the traditional political parties vote for the PVV. The way the national government has operated over the past months has been severely criticized by many citizens and this has worked out well for Mr. Wilders and his party. His ideas and his successes are regretted strongly by the traditional parties and by many other citizens, but how to stop him…?. Again tonight, when the results of the elections will be presented on national TV, one of the issues will be how well the PVV has done in The Hague and Almere, the other city where the PVV participates.

I have invited Esther to come and watch the voting outcome with me. It will be a long wait before the results are known of all 391 municipalities and at times it will be quite boring.

I’ll tell you later about the results!

Two Days After Elections

Indeed, the results are about as bad as expected, although most parties say they have done relatively well. There has been a national poll the same day among a representative sample of the Dutch population and local results are continually compared with the outcomes of the national poll. In the Hague, the PVV has become the second largest party with 8 seats out of 4; in Almere the PVV is now the largest party. Will we never be able to wear a headscarf anymore? By way of protest some Dutch women wore headscarves on the day of elections.

Good for them!

Both the parties, which were in the cabinet that fell two weeks ago, have lost seats. However, the Labour Party has done better than in earlier national polls, so they are optimistic about the June elections, but the Christian Democrats have lost, both in the national poll and locally.

The real tragedy has occurred in the Socialist Party, the SP. This party has had for many years a very talented and charismatic politician as a leader. Two years ago he was succeeded by a woman, Agnes Kant, who is a very alert politician and has had a great impact on the care policies in The Netherlands. In my opinion she really had excellent ideas about how to organize care. But now that she has become the party leader it is obvious she does not have her predecessor’s charisma. In fact in her presentations she seems to overact, to be always angry and even though she may have good arguments, she does not always manage to get them across, because of her presentation. The results of her party are not good locally and in the national poll her party loses more than half of its seats.

The day after the elections Agnes Kant resigns. I have never seen her with such a pale face and such a timid presentation. She says she has made this decision in the interest of her party. It is her own initiative. Nobody has asked her to go. From the other party members we hear they all like and support Agnes and regret her resignation. I have seldom seen so many warm feelings being expressed about a political leader. But Agnes has decided to go. Her predecessor cannot keep back his tears while talking about her. Agnes has not deserved this, because she has worked day and night for her party.

It is called leadership that she has recognized her shortcomings. This cannot be said of some of our other national leaders. I will miss Agnes.

In the municipalities the negotiations about the local government have started. The PVV leader for the Hague has literally promised to drive the political establishment crazy. We will have rough times in The Hague.

Questions: Do you face similar issues in your country? A party that focuses on a minority issue or group to win votes? A politician’s personality that overcomes the valuable contribution she or he has made? A candidate who has a difficult time debating in a public forum?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Friends from Long Ago by Aukje de Vries

I usually send a Christmas card with a circular letter to friends and relations whom I have known for a long time but whom I don’t see regularly. Some of my friends call it my annual report. Whatever it is, I try to give a brief overview of major events during the past year. I have noticed that obviously many highlights have to do with travel.

Some friends send me their circular letter; others just send a card or give me a phone call.

In 2009 this exercise had an unexpected but much welcomed effect.

A cousin of mine, who has moved to England and whom I haven’t seen for at least 20 years suggested in her message to exchange news by telephone. I had the feeling we had more or less lost contact. Our lives had taken a very different course, but when her card arrived (the privatized postal services hadn’t worked very well: her card reached me by the end of January) I immediately let her know that I was delighted to speak to her on the phone and gave her my number. Had I had hers, I would have called her immediately, but I could not find it in the British Directory.

The other surprise was a phone call from a friend I had known while I was in University, but with whom I had had more contact when we both lived in Amsterdam. During that period she got married and moved with her husband to the eastern part of the country. She raised her family, but due to distances – even though they are small in The Netherlands – we didn’t do more than exchange cards for Christmas and birthdays and have a – fairly rare- telephone conversation. She called me and suggested for us to get together.

This week was special because I first had the phone conversation with my cousin and the day after I met with my friend with whom I had dinner in a restaurant not far from where she lives. It happened to be very convenient becauset I had to go to a conference in the region where she lives.

In both cases there was a lot of information to exchange, but the fact that we had known each other a long time ago, obviously had created a bond and it was easy to pick up where we had left off, years ago. We renewed our friendship.

I have come to realize how important such long time friendships are. It seems to me that it is more difficult to make new friends now, because I get to meet not as many new people as before. I also notice that already quite a few of my good friends have passed away, so the circle of friends gets smaller. Right now I have more time to spend with friends and it is nice to make plans to do things together. I believe my friends have the same experience because I notice that many of them also invest (awful business term!) more in keeping up their social contacts.

Question: Have you also resumed contact with friends from long ago? What are your experiences with them?