By Giovanni Zambello
Years do not seem to take their toll if one adds life to them. This saying could easily summarize Barbro’s experience. 78 years of age, out of which almost 15 as a Red Crosser, Barbro Merkell’s life does not appear to be slowing down.
“I started volunteering in the Meeting Place Kupan in Gotland in 1998, after I retired from work. The kupan was still at its very beginning,” she says.
In Swedish, ‘kupan’ means ‘beehive’, and, if one just decides to drop by one of them and have a look inside, it is not hard to guess why. There are currently six such meeting places in the Swedish island of Gotland alone, out of the 274 on the national territory. Born as a small Red Cross-owned shop selling second-hand clothes, furniture, books and other items, the Meeting Place Kupan is a hive of activity, where people of all ages come to buy reasonably priced clothing and furniture, but also where individuals and self-help groups can gather, and where Swedish Red Cross volunteers are there to make those visits as pleasant as possible. Barbro is one of them.
“There are many lonely people in Gotland, especially among elderly people and those who take full-time care of their bedridden relatives at home,” Barbro says. “Many of them find a safe haven in the Kupan, where they can come and spend a few relaxing hours meeting other people, drinking a cup of coffee and listening to some live music performed by musicians that we invite.
“Sometimes, a simple pat on the shoulders or a ‘good to see you!’ gives them enough good vibrations and energy to recover from the stress of the whole week.”
Barbro was among the founders of these meeting places scattered across the island in southern Sweden, where volunteers support their own peers from the different communities, and help them break the circle of loneliness and social isolation that affects an increasing number of older people.
Barbro is also one of the Red Cross volunteers who attended the regional conference hosted by the Latvian Red Cross in Riga between 24 and 26 May 2012, on the topic of active aging and increasing intergenerational solidarity, which saw the participation of National Societies from Scandinavia, Baltic states, Belarus and Georgia.
Building on the Vienna Commitments of 2010, and in the framework of the ongoing European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations, the eight Red Cross societies that participated in the conference adopted a final statement, which commits each of them to strengthen their work at country level to create an enabling environment in favour of the elderly, to give them a voice, as well as to prioritize healthy living and access to healthcare.
“When your heart burns for something, and you put all your passion, skills and time into it, age does not matter anymore, and you become the best possible living example and the cause you fight for,” says Berith Jansson, 74, also from the Swedish delegation that attended the conference. Berith has been in the Red Cross for seven years, and volunteers in a five-person global group running international education projects at branch level. In the last three years, she has been working on a bilateral exchange project on summer camps between the Swedish Red Cross branch in Gotland and the Latvian Red Cross branch of Tukums. “The concept is radically different from traditional projects: we don’t merely support, but we learn from each other in a spirit of mutual exchange and enrichment. Our delegation - composed of people of different ages and experiences - comes here with kids and leaders to visit the camps organized by the Latvian Red Cross and learn how they run them, and then brings home what it has learnt. A Latvian delegation will then do the same, visiting us in Gotland.”