By Giovanni Zambello
Eva Zsigmond has been a part of the Red Cross movement for more than 20 years. For a few years now, she’s been involved in several community development activities in her local branch in Harghita county, central Romania. At the XVII Balkan Conference, held in Bucharest between 21 and 23 September, Eva presented a project run in her local branch, called Club of Generations.
“It’s not a project, it’s a process,” she said. “A process composed of a number of micro-projects, all run by the people of the Clubs of Generations. I don’t play such a big role in that, though. All I have done is make a room available for the activities in our centre, and – of course – giving proper training.”
The Club of Generations is a group of people working together improve the image and future of elderly people in their communities. “Each club of generations gathers 48 to 60 people on average. Young and elderly, volunteers and non-volunteers. Everyone is welcome to join it,” Eva said. “Some elderly people, for instance, were not volunteers, but wanted to become so after joining the Club of Generations.”
The overall goal of the club is to empower elderly people, to provoke a change of in themselves first, and then in the others. Training can help older people combat the long-lasting stereotype of the elderly as a burden and start to think of themselves as active citizens who can still have a role in society, and improve their own lives and others.
“When I try to involve people in activities, the first answer is always no. ‘Come on, I’m way too old for that,’ or ‘no, that’s not gonna work,’ and so on,” said Eva. “So what I do is to put them in a row and sum their ages. I say: ‘You see, here you have 562 years of experience. That’s already more than enough.’
“Suddenly they remember that they know thousands of recipes, they know all the medicinal uses of herbs, they realize that younger people are interested in what they have to say. This is the inner change that we seek,” Eva said. “It is impossible to describe the happiness on their faces when they’re wrapping gifts, when they receive greetings cards, the responsible attitude that they show when they are entrusted with a responsibility, like watering flowers and keeping the lawn green and healthy in the common garden. It gives them motivation, energy, life.”
18 months after the 8th European Regional Conference, a number of National Societies are starting to show the results of the commitments made in Vienna in April 2010 in relation to active ageing and self-empowerment of the elderly.
“We are good at service delivery for older people, but we need to strengthen our efforts in advocacy,” said Emilie Goller, international relations officer in the Austrian Red Cross. “A lot of advocacy work must be done at National Society level, because, if Red Cross Red Crescent is to be a mirror of the society it works in, it must be able adapt to a society which is undergoing radical demographic changes.”
Older people as a resource, active ageing and elderly empowerment are all terms which suggest a radical and general change of mindsets. A change which is still needed in many National Societies in Europe.
“Involving elderly people in our activities is a good advocacy tool. But, still, it is not enough” continued Emilie. “We’re not going to change the way we are if we don’t go deeper into the change itself: we can’t force older people into our well-established programmes, we have to make sure that new programmes come to life. Programmes tailored to the needs and the skills of the new generation of volunteers, without prejudices and reservations.
“I’ve often heard people say that this is not a typical Red Cross activity. Well, we don’t have to be typical. We just have to be ready for change.”