Vol 1, No 9, 23 August 1999

The elderly are seen by many as complaining old Communists T R A N S I T I O N ' S   L O S E R S:
White-haired Whiners?
The generational divide in Czech society

Catherine Miller

As both James Partridge and Jan Culik have mentioned in earlier issues of CER, there is an established idealization of the Babicka in Czech society, based largely on Bozena Nemcovaís novel of the same name. The Babicka is kindly and caring towards her grandchildren, spreading her largesse, in the form of an astounding array of baked goodies, to all who cross her path. And indeed, for many of my Czech contemporaries, this has been their experience of grandma - if nowhere else then at least in the baking department.

However, for those of us not familially well-connected, there is a much less pleasant, public face of Babicka which is most commonly experienced on the tram or metro. It is the Babicka who, after displaying remarkable speed in running to catch the train, suddenly becomes frail once on board and demands to take your seat. Or worse still, appropriates the seat with a swift swish of a walking stick against unprotected ankles. While most of us accept such behaviour as one of the few luxuries afforded by advancing age and young Czechs are still remarkably gracious in offering to help their elderly counterparts, this month an unprecedented condemnation of the elderly appeared, appropriately enough, in the daily Metro.

Martin Manak's column, entitled, "Pensioners' Month" (9 August 1999) is a sharp reaction to the 300 Kc (around six British pounds) pension increase seniors were allocated this month. Manak's argument is limited and almost purely malicious. There are three main issues which he raises in this article.

First, that the average pension of around 5800Kc (110 pounds) per month is perfectly sufficient and secondly, that he is furious with pensioners who whine as they do not actually deserve to receive anything in the first place. In Manak's view, the state has no business taking the money he pays as a tax payer and giving it to a load of old strangers to whom he is indifferent. It is the role of the family to care for their own elderly. (Here he shoots himself in the foot somewhat as he reminisces about his own grandmother who, under Communism, apparently lived on bread and water.)

The current generation of elderly are, apparently, particularly unworthy of any state help as "people who worked under the old regime [and] did not produce anything of value." He further attributes the following jingle to them, that "I worked as a socialist, now I want to live as a capitalist." The final point Manak makes, discernable more from the atmosphere than strictly from the content of the article, is the creation of an absolute divide between 'them' and 'us' presenting the elderly as an entirely separate group in society.

Manak's article is easy to shoot down - there is no real argument, no evidence and is plainly intended as a provokation. He writes for eample: "Their (pensioners') fate is indifferent to me. They have never given me anything and never will. And just in the same way I don't intend to pay for their old age. I think that is a fair approach. I don't want to be sympathetic. It's not compulsory." Indeed, the whole thing could be condemned as trash, hardly worth commenting on.

But instead, the article has provoked an extended correspondence in the paper, as well as heated discussions, in my office particularly, and I imagine in other offices around Prague. It has touched a raw nerve concerning generational relationships and shaken up accepted stereotypes of the elderly in the Czech Republic. It forces us to ask, who are the elderly today, how do they live and what will their (and our) futures be?

Puny pensions?

Let's return to the first point made in Manak's piece - that financially the elderly really are not so badly off. As with all such questions, the situation varies greatly from one individual to the next. For example, Mrs Kopeckova and her husband, whom I visited in the Moravian town of Brno, feel that they "get by on their pensions," and with the additional compensation she receives for her time in a concentration camp (the sources are the Czech-German fund and the German state), they do not face any real financial hardship.

However, as she points out, it's a different matter if you are left on your own. In Prague, from the 5800Kc average monthly pension, a single pensioner cannot expect much change once the rent and utilities have been paid.

On the other hand, Vera Kudinova, from the Fischer travel agency, reports that the number of senior citizens booking holidays with them is rising dramatically and they are beginning to extend their range of holiday packages specifically gearing them towards this age group.

Although some senior citizens are evidently reaping the benefits of restitution and their children's economic independence, they seem to remain the exception rather than the rule. Overall, pensioners have lost out since the revolution.

While in 1989 pensions stood at a little more than half of the average wage, it has now fallen to 45 percent and the real spending power of the elderly has dropped by 11 percent over the past decade. Additionally, as Edgar Semmel, vice-president of the Czech Association of Pensioners, points out, under the former regime, pensioners benefited from a number of perks which eased their financial burden.

"At that time old people had a whole number of advantages and possibilities. For example to take part very cheaply in trade-union events or to eat in work canteens for the same price as employees. These things have basically been lost in the past years." More seriously, the elderly are also the first victims of the deteriorating health-care system. When these factors are added together it hardly seems surprising that a large amount of the popular support for the Communist Party (now 20 percent strong) comes from elderly citizens who yearn for their lost security. One of the letters which the article ellicited suggests that opinions such as his will only serve to increase this number.

Government attention, when it occasionally turns towards the elderly, has tended to focus on future measures needed to prevent the complete collapse of the pensions system jeopardised by the falling birth rate, rising life expectancy and ever diminishing funds. However, this discussion only touches on those still in a position to make alternative arrangements for their future pensions and ignores the 2.5 million existing pensioners along with the hundreds of thousands who will retire over the next few years.

Semmel and his organization insist that discussions must take account of this group, which constitutes one-third of the adult population. They further maintain that pensions should be returned at least to the levels they stood at in 1989.

Complaining old Communists?

Although senior citizens may have lost out financially over the past decade, their reputation for complaining outstrips the actual difficulties of their situation. While I am well used to listening to my own grandmother's complaints about the quality of food/service/company in her Scottish old-folks' home, and accept it as an intrinsic part of old age (along with seats on the tram), elderly Czechs have a particularly bad reputation as whiners - not only among people like Mr Manak.

Mrs Kopeckova does not seek out the company of her own generation, because "they get on my nerves... complain an awful lot and talk so much about their illnesses."

Jan Lorman, a decidedly non-self-pitying senior citizen, is head of the Zivot 90 organization, which aims to promote the active participation of the elderly in their own lives and increase their sense of responsibility for their situation.

"Here, in their sixties and seventies, but also in their forties, there are lots of people who are pubescent, who haven't grown up yet. Who don't understand that, above all, they have to bear the responsibility for what they do in this world. And instead complain that 'this government didn't do this or that person didn't do that' and say they have rights to everything just because they are old."

However, the elderly Czechs I have come in contact with have not particularly supported the view that they are prone to self-pity. On the contrary, I have been impressed by their stoicism and the modesty of their demands.

Mrs Kopeckova works all day looking after her husband, who as result of a minor leg-injury made worse by a botched operation, is completely dependent on her to feed, dress and bath him. Only three years ago, they were on holiday together in Greece and last year, managed a trip into the Czech countryside.

But his small handicap has left esentially them both completely house-bound. Mrs Kopeckova is almost excessively grateful for the home visits made by a German volunteer, which allow her to leave the house to take care of basic tasks such as shopping or a trip to the hairdresser's. When I asked her what she feels she misses out on, she only expressed regrets at not having a little more time for herself and that previously she had been the one to go and give others a hand.

She has few illusions about her situation and in response to Manak's aforementioned jingle she replies "I can't expect to live as a capitalist if I'm on a pension. I'd have to go and work as a cleaner, or work at home or something, so that I could afford something like that. I can't expect these things from the state."

Mrs Spirkova, a resident of a Prague old-folks home for the past four years, likewise does not demonstrate this infamous tendency to whine. Aged 97, she enthuses about how busy her days are and says that she falls asleep in the evenings still composing songs and poems. During my visit, she wanted to recite one of her poems to the male residents of the home and seemed slightly piqued that they preferred to go dancing with, what she deemed, 'young' ladies. Rather than moaning about being abandoned by her family, she is glad not to burden them with her own problems, leaving them to take care of their own children and grandchildren and appreciates the efforts they make to visit her.

Generation gaps

As the rest of the Czech Republic busies itself with transition to democracy and a market economy, the easiest thing to do with its non-active population might be to try to forget about it. Manak's article appears to express the sentiment that, to put it crudely, they should shut up and be grateful we didn't hang the lot of them, and so adding to the generation gap the dimension of "you old Communist" versus "we young capitalists."

However, there is one obvious reason for not forgetting this social group - as one-third of the adult population, pensioners hold serious voting power. Therefore, politically the elderly voices will have to be listened to despite the fact that, socially, the gap between the young and old seems to be growing.

The most significant factor, contributing to the isolation of the elderly, can be found in changes in family relationships where the family formed the traditional meeting place for generations. Although, grandparents still play a significant, and often thankless, role in the upbringing of children, the family unit has become much less cohesive.

Mrs Kopeckova looks back to the war years for the beginning of this process as people were forced to move and lost, or were separated, from their relatives. Mutual dependency within the family was then, in her view, further disrupted by the Communist regime as women were forced to work, leaving them little time for their children and even less for their parents. A pragmatic source of antipathy towards the elderly can also be found in the simple fact of too many generations living in small, cramped flats, inevitably resulted in conflicts.

The future's bright - the future's greyIn many ways, little has changed in the years since 1989 as young families still struggle to make ends meet and so often cohabit with grandparents when they start out. While both parents work to pay the bills, children are brought up in creches, and grandparents are eventually shunted off to old-folks' homes as their care needs become too demanding.

Although, Manak's division of old Reds and young yuppies is considered extreme and even, in Jan Lorman's view, "verging on fascist," the speed of transformation in society does tend to brush off opinions of the elderly because they "don't really understand how things work these days." Mrs Kopeckova views the indifference of the young to the wisdom of her years with indulgence : "everyone has to experience things for themselves" - but the general perception of an old person's opinion as an invalid opinion can only serve to futher isolate the elderly.

The future's bright - the future's grey

The Czech Republic is following the demographic trends of Western Europe in that its elderly population is growing while its young, active population is falling. This obviously carries serious implications for the pensions system, which the Czech government is lagging woefully behind its Hungarian and Polish neighbours in addressing.

Though the inevitable crisis will force the government (probably too late) to deal with the financial issues involved, it is less clear how young Czechs are going to bring themselves to face with their own attitudes towards this group. There is one initiative already underway, which aims to bridge the generation gap.

Among the villas on Prague's Petrin Hill, a large nineteenth-century building sits among spacious gardens - the epitome, one might expect, of standard institutional care. However, the visitor quickly becomes aware that all is not what it seems. There is no porter at the gate barring your entry, members of the public stroll in the well-kept gardens, the house dog snuffles round your feet and from the back come the sounds of pet goats which are bred on site. As you walk into the house, past residents sun themselves by a fountain, and you are met with a sunny hallway filled with pot plants and pictures. Not a forbidding notice in sight.

This is Palata a state-run home for the blind elderly and a prototype - if the energetic director, Jindriska Kubikova, has her way - of how care for the elderly may look in the future. As much attention is given to the social as the health care requirements of the 145 inhabitants and active participation in events such as the weekly kavarna (coffee house) is encouraged.

However, the main ambitions of the highly committed staff lie beyond the gates, in breaking down the barriers, which exist between institutional care and the home. Palata is also the seat of the Domov je doma (Home is at home) initiative which aims to keep, with the help of volunteers who visit old people and help them with basic household tasks, the elderly to stay in their own homes for as long as possible. This may hardly seem revolutionary to those of us used to well-established services such as 'Meals on wheels,' but in the Czech Republic it is a breakthrough in the concept of care for the elderly.

While the motivation to develop home-based care is partly financial (Kubikova believes that with the same resources, she could look after twice as many people again, if care was moved into the home), it is, above all, social. If staff visit the elderly in their homes, and if they, in turn, take part in activities centred on the institution, the otherwise traumatic change from home to institution is greatly eased.

When an individual's health problems prevent them from staying on in their own homes, they move into a familiar environment. At the same time, the visits of independent, home-based old people to the institution, increases residents' contact with the outside world and prevents them from being dissociated from society.

Kubikova is also keen to abolish the separation of blind and sighted elderly, allowing the residents to play a more active role in helping one another and socializing amongst themselves. Moreover, by enlisting the help of young volunteers and particularly students from the relevant faculties, relations and mutual respect between the different generations are built up.

These steps are innovative, pragmatic and laudable, suggesting that the future of care for the elderly in the Czech Republic is not as bleak as portrayed. However, during my visit to Palata, what struck me most of all was the positive attitude towards old age.

Understandably, it will take time for the concept of old age as a 'Third Age' of leisure time, meant to be enjoyed to catch on in the Czech Republic as, unfortunately, there is still an overwhelming tendency to view it as something which must be endured with as little discomfort as possible. Or, even by some elderly citizens, as a torture which must be loudly complained about.

Until there is a basic change in the perception of old age as both a time for self-fulfilment and positive interaction within society, the elderly here will be considered as a group apart, who only enter the public consciousness as worrying figures for the pensions scheme and vicious walking sticks on the metro.

Catherine Miller, 20 August 1999




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