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?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Interview with Dr. Afaf Mahfouz

Dr. Afaf Mahfouz is a long-time advocate for human rights around the world. We at Global Action on Aging wanted to hear her perspective as an older person who continues to be an activist and important voice in her field. Most recently, Dr. Mahfouz traveled to Cairo in December to participate in the International Freedom March in solidarity with the people of Gaza. We were eager to learn from her and hear her story.

Interviewed by: Cindy LeHelley and Isabel Nicholson, Global Action on Aging

Trained in law, political science, and psychoanalysis, Professor Mahfouz has been a professor, diplomat, psychoanalyst, and advocate for women’s participation and human rights. In recent years she has been an activist for the promotion of non-governmental organization in the United Nations system. She was elected First Vice President (199501997) and President (1997-2000) of the Conference of the Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CoNGO). She writes and publishes and is the co-editor of The Future of Prejudice: Psychoanalysis and the Prevention of Prejudice (2007). Dr. Mahfouz was born in 1938 and continues to be an active and engaged member of the international political community.

Q: Dr. Mahfouz, you recently traveled to Cairo this winter to participate in the International Gaza Freedom March. How was the experience and why did you go?

I traveled to Cairo with the organization Code Pink, which is an organization of women against violence and war. We went to help the world see - through our protests and the Media coverage -what happened to people in Gaza as a result of the Israeli invasion last December and the effects of the multi-year Israeli blockade on their daily lives. We also went in May to try to train people on how to deal with traumatized children. What happened this past January in Gaza and has been happening in the region is very cruel. The children in Gaza needed everything from toys to counseling. We were all prevented from even leaving Cairo to cross the border into Gaza.

So you see, we all went to go to Gaza, not to Egypt, but we weren't allowed in. It was frustrating, but rewarding at the same time because we felt like we did help in sensitizing the world to what is going on. We agreed to create a movement similar to what happened in South Africa against the Apartheid. Altogether, with 1,400 people from 42 countries protesting in Cairo, we received enormous international press, television and International coverage. I think it was very successful.

Q: Were there many older people in Cairo there to protest?

There were a lot of older people there, beautiful ones, many older than 70. There was even an 85 year old Holocaust survivor who went on a hunger strike with the other protesters. There was a broad range of ages among the protesters, from young to old people. During the week we were there, everyone demonstrated in Cairo every day, no one was there for tourism, we were all there for purely political reasons.

Q: As an older person who remains to be very politically active, what are some of the challenges you face?

In the Arab-Muslim world, older people are respected and appreciated. People listen to them because it is part of the culture to pay attention to what they say. It sinks in more somehow. I remember going back to the Middle East 20 years ago, and more people argued with me. They would say that I’ve been “westernized.” Now that I’m older, people listen and engage in dialogue.

In the US, my age matters less. Here, your influence comes more from the group or community that you are a part of, rather than your voice as an individual.

Q: We consider you a role model, especially for older people. What is some advice you have to the aging population?

Caring about political issues keeps us emotionally and intellectually healthy. Aging is not easy. As our body ages, we have aches and pains. We start to concentrate on ourselves and become self-centered. I believe that to better manage this transition, we need to continue to do something meaningful for the world. We need to be out of ourselves and to reach out to younger generations. We need to continue to listen to the younger generations and engage in dialogue because their lives are not the same that ours were. We need to available to the community. I advise people to join any kind of group that interests them or focuses on anything that they care about. It helps us survive and do what we care about.