Women take the lead

The erosion of government social welfare provision for older people has led to a greater dependence upon the voluntary sector to provide information and support, says Olga Boiko.

By 2005 it is estimated that for every 1.5 people of working age in Russia there will be one pensioner. In the mid-1990s the social welfare system collapsed and failed to deliver even the smallest pensions on time. Since then the vulnerability of older people remains incessant.

Non-governmental organisations are a vital grass-roots resource for the community of older people. These work with and for older people and must be seen not as supplementary aid filling gaps in the social system but as independent centres of civic activity.

The Women’s League Initiative, a Saratov regional public organisation, was established in 1995 by Tatiana Kataeva to support women’s educational, social, legal and cultural activity. Two related community projects were set up to meet one of the league’s priorities of providing advocacy for older people. I took part in both.

The Older Generation Centre in the city centre provides legal, psychological and social help and advice to older people through professional consulting and a hotline. In one year there have been 1,500 requests for help from older people, 63 per cent of whom were women.

Legal help is in great demand here which is why a lawyer provided most of the face-to-face consultations. More than half the cases were connected with housing problems. Older people were interested in their selling, exchange and inheritance rights. Other requests for help included disputes with the housing service over repairs, heating and rebuilding of dilapidated homes. Some calls were prompted by conflicts with relatives living with them, which posed questions of forced exchange and eviction.

Social workers were also involved, sometimes visiting disabled older people at home to assess their situation and help with writing letters. One 77-year-old pensioner with impaired hearing had been waiting 18 months for a low cost earphone. As a result of a written application by the centre he received his earphone two months later.

A mental health hotline helps provide information and consultation. Half the calls sought contact details of other organisations. Consultations (which made up 22.2 per cent of calls) were divided into three groups: 10.6 per cent of calls were about relationship difficulties; 4.6 per cent were about elder abuse – physical, psychological and economic; and 7 per cent were related to personal crises and suicide threats caused by financial and social insecurity, despair and loneliness.

A second project, Meeting Clubs for Older Women, aims to empower women. Local community professionals – lawyers, therapists, psychotherapists, local historians and cultural workers – are invited to talk to older people. Club meetings have been carried out in residential care settings and social meeting places.

In one year 53 meetings were organised for nearly 1,000 participants. Legal, medical and cultural themes were prominent. Lectures about housing law took place most frequently (23 per cent) which offered information about housing reforms, pension law, family law, consumer law, notary law and court advocacy. Medical lectures looked at patient advocacy, gerontology and psychiatry. The cultural programme was enthrallingly varied, ranging over city history, local churches, revolutionary events, universities, philanthropists, catacombs, and monuments.

The Meeting Clubs for Older Women project is remarkable because of the wide public participation. The Women’s League Initiative worked efficiently with older people in their local areas, enlisting the help of social institutions and independent professionals. It could well be a good example for statutory services to take up.

Olga Boiko is a senior lecturer at thedepartment of social anthropology and social work in Saratov State Technical University, Russia.

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