New lease on social life for older Greeks

I expected to see grandfathers with walking sticks and white-haired grannies talking about their grandchildren when I went to one of the state-run social centers for senior citizens (KAPI) at Halandri, a northern Athens suburb. What I found were energetic ladies and gentlemen who appreciate what they find at the centers but are battling to improve things. I met people who sing, dance and who radiate a vitality which would put many young people to shame. The center, a small house, buzzes with energy. Everyone knows everyone else, they greet each other and joke. My first question is, what brings them there? Vassiliki lives in an apartment building where all the women work long hours so she doesn’t know any of them. «I signed up here and got to know everyone in my neighborhood. All these women are neighbors but we had never really known each other before, just by sight. Now we are the best of friends,» she said. It is clear that the concept of «neighborhood» has been revived in these centers. Georgia joined up at the prompting of her children. «My children go to work, come home, eat and go out again. My husband goes to the cafe, he’s a regular there; he comes home about 4 p.m. and goes to sleep. What am I supposed to do? My children said they wanted me to get out of the house, so I came here. The other ladies had registered before me. We already had each other’s telephone numbers as our children had gone to school together, and used to say hello, but that is all. Now we are like a big family, we have a good time together,» she said. Anna agrees: «I am very happy here. I have found myself, isn’t that what you young people say? In the old days we were hassled and tired; now we can say we really live our lives,» she explained. Each Wednesday afternoon, they meet to listen to music and to dance. When the cassette player starts up with the old song «Cloudy Days,» the ladies get up. The mood is also upbeat in the handicrafts class. Friday morning the students are making bonzai with semiprecious stones and wire. They proudly show me the picture frames and flower arrangements they have made, tell jokes and sing. At another KAPI in Halandri, the vocabulary is more typical of young people. Roula, who the others call the «boss,» has just arrived. The others said if Roula doesn’t go on an excursion, then no one does. «If I don’t come one day, they ring me up and persuade me to come. What can I say? I’ve learned to love the kids here,» she laughs. «I worked all my life. Now I’m enjoying it.» A similar atmosphere prevails at the municipal Friendship Clubs in Gyzi and Amerikis Square. Grigoris, 89, and his friends have a great sense of humor. They play cards about five hours a day. «We only go home when we get hungry. We are professional cardsharps!» jokes Andreas. They tease each other continually. «Have you ever seen a tall person with brains?» Grigoris asks me, pointing to Constantinos. «I want to introduce him to a woman, but he doesn’t want to get married.» Women are the subject of conversation among Thanassis’s friends as well. «We have lost our wives and so we come here. We are financially independent, all we need is a little old lady. We don’t pretend to be great lovers, but if we suit someone, we would be happy. Respect, friendship and dignity is what we need,» said Thanassis. One couple who met each other at the club agreed to speak to us on condition of anonymity, as the lady has not told her children about the relationship. «Life is wonderful at all ages. We have become very close,» she said. «We respect each other and both make compromises. When you fall in love at this age, the feeling is much stronger.» The gentleman confides that one does not often find a woman with such a warm heart. «Only every 100 years, and then it is a gift from heaven,» he said. While most of the members are satisfied with the centers and clubs, there are some complaints «as in every family,» as one lady said. At the Halandri KAPI, where card games are prohibited, Andreas and Dimitris say they would like to pass their time playing cards. Dimitris notes the lack of a library. Olga, at the Gyzi Friendship Club, complained about a reduction in the number of activities. «We used to have painting, handicrafts and a choir, now nothing. We are still waiting for them to fix the chairs, which are in a terrible state,» she said. Nearly all members of this club complain about the continual postponement of needed renovations. Repairs have been completed in the Amerikis Square branch, but there, too, activities have been cut. All members wanted more excursions and for the centers to stay open weekends, when most members have little to do. «When you go on an excursion, you become a different person, you see young people. The elderly are not dead; they are alive and will die while living,» said Spyros. Complaints aside, everyone is generally happy with the organization and staff at the centers. Dance night is always well attended, with souvlaki and wine at the Gyzi club. I envy them their good times, and for having a place to congregate. «Wouldn’t it be nice for young people to have somewhere to meet friends every day and not have to pay much for a drink?» asked Anna. As I left, I realized that these people, who have experienced most of the problems life has to offer, are now enjoying it to the full. This article appeared in the December 25-26 issue of «K,» Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement. Photographs by Maro Kouri. Loneliness the biggest problem At the Friendship Club in Amerikis Square, considered one of the best of its kind, sociologist Lia Tsapatsari has set up a communication group for discussing problems. «Most of the problems concern their relationships with their children and grandchildren. Their biggest problem is feeling alone. Their children have their own families and they try not to interfere. Most older people don’t live with their children, but close by. There are still some nuclear families, but this is something that is dying out. Older people today realize that they have to keep a distance from their children and that is where the difficulties arise; how to coexist without interfering. Then we have people who met here and then got married. These are not simply platonic relationships, but sexual. They are sexually active – we are talking about people over 80 years old.»