18. Countering social exclusion of the elderly through entertainment: The Zrenjanin Gerontology Center case

Department of Development Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland

Older people are often at risk of being left at the margin of society

The phenomenon of “being left behind” should be perceived as a multidimensional issue that does not limit itself to experiencing poverty, violence, disease or discrimination. It may also refer to subtler forms of exclusion, such as the social marginalisation of elderly people. Often lonely and ailing, senior citizens frequently need special care and attention. Having largely lost their traditional privileged role in the community, as younger people become more reluctant to seek their knowledge and experience, the elderly suffer from an ever-growing generation gap. Low self-esteem, helplessness and a sense of being useless lead to feelings of dejection and make it even more challenging for senior citizens to integrate with society.

The situation is particularly difficult in countries with underfinanced welfare systems whose elderly populations have limited access to leisure time activities. Deprived of the joy of life, senior citizens experience deteriorating health, combined with a reluctance towards rehabilitation (especially when it is arduous and lacking in social or entertainment value). Thus, countering the exclusion of the elderly is a prerequisite for their psychological and physical well-being, as well as for fulfilling their right to a decent autumn of life.

Occupational therapy and intergenerational exchange: a multidimensional approach to reintegrate the elderly in their communities

Taking a holistic approach is vital in any attempt to counter the problem of the elderly being left behind. Projects should address both the physical and mental wellbeing of senior citizens, and cannot limit themselves to ad hoc assistance. Rather, they should strive to reintegrate the elderly into their community.

One example of a multidimensional approach is “Occupational Therapy for Patients of the Zrenjanin Gerontology Center”, a project carried out in 2017 by the Embassy of Poland in Belgrade. This addressed the needs of senior residents of a city in the autonomous province of Vojvodina, Serbia. The project aimed to encourage elderly residents of the Zrenjanin Gerontology Center and those belonging to the centre’s Senior Club to actively participate in the wider community and to make acquaintances on an intergenerational basis.

Introducing occupational therapy for the senior citizens, which was made possible through the purchase of a woodworking machine, sports and games equipment, was not only beneficial for their intellectual capacity and physical health, but also facilitated their integration with the local society, as each of the activities involved students from two local schools.

Furthermore, the project helped boost the self-confidence of the elderly residents, some of whom (including one resident with disabilities) were asked to give carpentry and table tennis lessons to both pensioners and schoolchildren. As far as the chess section was concerned, its members could compete in a tournament, with prizes being presented by the Polish ambassador in Belgrade, the Serbian minister of labour, and representatives of local authorities.

By involving both the pensioners from the gerontology centre and its Senior Club and the schoolchildren (thereby enabling an intergenerational encounter between two groups whose contact had been limited before) the project helped create a win-win situation, in which the elderly were both receivers and donors of assistance. The idea of rehabilitation and integration through entertainment and competition seemed to enhance active co-operation and reduce any reluctance to take part.

Using interesting and fun activities to find a common denominator between generations as a key to success

The success of the project lay in the identification of the participant groups and finding a common denominator between them: something that would be genuinely enjoyable and interesting for both the elderly and the youth. Light-hearted, entertaining activities made it possible to achieve the project’s goals in an unobtrusive, engaging manner that did not result in reluctance or feigned interest from the participants. Enabling the elderly to share their knowledge and skills with the schoolchildren also helped them regain their self-confidence and showed their value to the youth. The chess tournament, the trophies presented by prominent figures, and the media coverage, played an important part in boosting the senior citizens’ self-esteem.

What next?

By addressing the common human need for affiliation and for being valued and needed, as well as using the mechanism of mutual benefit to bridge the generation gap and to challenge social exclusion, the project has substantial potential for wider implementation. The pilot programme carried out at the Zrenjanin Gerontology Center could be easily adjusted to different local contexts, laying the foundation for a wider framework of rehabilitation and integration through entertainment and competition. Similar measures could be taken in other municipalities of Vojvodina or even, in the longer term, throughout Serbia, leading to gradual re-evaluation of the position of the elderly within society.

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