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?

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