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 ?