Kosovo Glocal: Fighting loneliness in old age


Zoja, always open-hearted, warmly opens the gate to her yard. For three and a half years, she has spent her days alone in her yellow-painted house. For her, the nights now seem longer. Once, her small yard was filled with the sounds of her children’s voices. After that, with the voices of her nieces and nephews. Today, a ball in a corner brings back many memories for her. Her children’s first steps. Group laughter. Games. Cheers when scoring the winning goal. Joint explosions of triumph when the last of the players spit to signal the end of a game of hide and seek.

Sitting in the shade under the late September grapevines and green kiwi leaves, Zoja also remembers the cries of children that were hurt playing games. She also remembers the struggles of her family and all of Kosovo in 1999. Today, she lives alone.

The voices of Elita Cena and Ajshe Morina bring a smile to her face. Visits from the 14-year-old girls breathe new life into the place. She talks to them about her joys and troubles. She loves to talk about her husband, because since he died, she has no one to talk to.

“I have lived alone since my husband died, for three and a half years now,” said the 73-year-old woman from Rahovec. “I don’t even drink coffee in the morning because we used to have it together. Sometimes I even say to myself, ‘Why did I use to let him wait for me? To finish household chores and then another one’ while the coffee got cold.”

Zoja changes the subject. A more beautiful memory takes over from the longing.

“I used to call him Bill Clinton because he was as handsome as America’s Clinton,” said Zoja, comparing her late husband to the former American president.

It was a warm early autumn day in Rahovec, the town of grapes. Zoja insisted at all costs that Cena and Morina, who from time to time take care of her, drink a cold glass of juice with her. As rarely happens nowadays, life returns to the yard.

“I’m good, thank God I’m fine. They also come with me to buy things, they always tell me ‘what do you want us to buy? Do you have to go to the medical center?’” said Zoja, mother of two daughters and three sons.

All of them are married and live in Germany. “All of them went abroad without visas and then obtained visas. The last of the boys went to Germany after the war. Now they come once a year, this year they have come twice,” she said. “For God’s sake, it is hard on my own, and recently I was a bit sick, but thank God these girls come.” While speaking, Zoja glances at Cena and Morina. Although Zoja’s sons and daughters have also left their doors open for her, she has not visited Germany since the passing of her husband.

She fears that she would become a burden for her children. “As long as I’m still good, I’d rather stay here, because for god’s sake, my children begged me, ‘Come here, mother,’ but there’s no place better than in my house,” she said. “When they come here during holidays, we have good times together, but they have their own lives there. I have never gone without my husband. When I had my husband, I used to go. We walked in Germany hand in hand, we enjoyed it.”

Meanwhile, Cena and Morina help her in the corridor while Zoja brings cookies to the table outside. “We have a great time, we talk, we laugh, I enjoy my time here. She tells us a little about her life, about many things,” said Cena. “She [Zoja] is always smiling.”

“I really enjoy listening to her speak about her past. There are painful stories and we should give her more support,” said Morina. Before the marriage, Zoja had worked in one of the state factories in Rahovec, when Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia. After marriage, her husband’s family did not allow her to work.

“The girls,” as she likes to address Cena and Morina, never come empty-handed and are volunteers from the local organization Hareja. For six months, Hareja has been implementing the “To live alone” project, through which volunteers have helped dozens of elderly people in Rahovec who lack support for their basic needs. Zoja is one of 65 elderly people from the Rahovec area who receive the support of volunteers.

Hareja was founded in 2000, While providing psychological, physiotherapeutic services and various social activities around Rahovec, Hareja noticed the growing number of elderly people who were living alone due to the migration of their children. Additionally, there are many elderly people who do not have children.

“In our field work, we happened to meet with women of different ages, with different people, we saw that most of the elderly were left without care,” said Adelina Paçarizi, director of the association. She said that they immediately started designing and implementing the project through which 65 elderly people living alone were identified. Of them, 33 are Albanian women, 30 Serbs (19 women and 11 men) and two Roma.

For the “To live alone” project, Hareja also obtained a license from the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare to take care of and treat the elderly beneficiaries through professional programs. Paçarizi said that this project, which started in February 2023 and lasted six months, wanted to show the elderly that society had not forgotten them, despite the lack of institutional care.

For six months, the elderly gathered at the Hareja facility in Rahovec, where they met their peers from different areas and ethnicities. There, they cooked together and later invited each other to their homes, strengthening their social ties. They shared their concerns, all of which all had one thing in common: living alone. They also visited various places in Kosovo, such as the spring of the White Drin River and the Rugova Mountains.

For Zoja, the group trip was great fun. Apart from the jokes and serious conversations, they could also get to know about each other’s lives. Zoja said that she and her friends sang and danced to temporarily forget the boredom of loneliness.

Some volunteers, such as Cena and Morina, accompanied the elderly during their trip, medical visits and while buying food and medicine.

Loneliness — a burden for the elderly

Zoja refused to reveal her identity and be photographed because she feared that: “her sons and daughters in Germany might hear people saying ‘look, they have left their mother alone,’ and this is not their fault just because I didn’t want to go there.”

In Kosovo there is a social expectation that children must take care of their parents in their old age.

Artan Krasniqi, lecturer in the sociology of culture at the University of Prishtina, said that during their youth, the elderly had planned that when they reach old age, their descendants or close family members would look after them.

“This has been and largely continues to be, the dominant norm in society. Avoiding this norm is followed by prejudice and moral judgment, which is a very heavy mark in traditional societies,” said Krasniqi. “Aware of this mark, the stigma, that the children who ‘abandon’ their parents can be identified with, the latter decide to remain silent or speak about this more easily under conditions of anonymity. It’s an attempt to preserve the honor of the family, in a way they created themselves.”

The number of elderly people living alone has been increasing in Kosovo, especially due to migration to European countries, but also due to breaking away from traditional norms.

Almedina Jaha, a psychologist engaged in the “To live alone” project, said that isolation in old age has a negative effect on people like Zoja, who have spent most of their lives in large families.

“The elderly have always sought support from their family members, and this [isolation] has had a negative impact. This includes the movement of the population from villages to cities, or abroad,” she said, adding that Kosovar society is not prepared for the impact of these changes for the elderly. “We did not think that there would be such a large movement of the population.”

Krasniqi said that older generations are more resistant and more inclined to reject social change, “because this disrupts their comfort zone or in this case, their projection of a comfort zone. This is accompanied by psychological and social trauma and pressure on them.”

According to data from the Kosovo Agency of Statistics, the average age of the 1.7 million inhabitants of Kosovo is 30 years and only 6.2% of them are aged 65 or over. “Because the elderly are almost always cared for by their families, their interests are neglected by society at large,” notes the Kosovar Stability Initiative (KSI), in its 2018 “Don’t Get Old” research report.

“With limited voting influence, the elderly have long been neglected by our politicians. Unlike some of our neighbors, we do not have a powerful pensioners’ party,” states the KSI report. According to the report, the nature of Kosovar society does not help much in this respect. With the family law, the state delegates the care of the elderly to the family. Activities for them are rare.

The survey conducted as part of KSI’s report found that the majority of Kosovo’s pensioners have never gone to the theater, or to see a film or exhibition.

“In addition to this, with very few clubs for pensioners and virtually no day care centers with suitable facilities for the elderly, isolation and the lack of physical and mental exercise can contribute to poor physical and mental wellbeing, quite possibly leading to an increase in conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s,” states the report. 90% percent of respondents said that their families supported them with their medical expenses and none had private health insurance.

The KSI survey points out that 88% of the pensioners surveyed would like to be involved “in activities dedicated to their age group by civil society organizations, let’s say in the field of volunteering.”

Paçarizi said that around 200 people come and go from the Hareja association for various needs. During awareness campaigns, volunteers are also engaged to take care of elderly people who are alone. “There have been girls that have told us they are interested in volunteering after finishing their studies,” she said.

Psychologist Jaha said that helping elderly people left without care is important in many respects.

“For the elderly, loneliness can have a significant impact on their mental health. Helping and caring for them has a positive effect either in improving their emotional state, easing the feeling of loneliness, or even anxiety in some cases,” she said.

Jaha said that after the social, collective and individual sessions, the elderly are able to manage their emotions better and are more aware of their physical and psychological needs. “During the activities, we took the elderly to different places, we visited different cities in Kosovo. Here they were able to socialize a little more with their peers, helping them feel happy, satisfied and able to share their problems,” said Jaha.

Zoja spoke about the liveliness on the bus journey through the beautiful towns and mountains of Kosovo. “Honestly, we enjoyed playing the tambourine and singing. Ask the girls, they will tell you,” said Zoja, looking at Jaha and Paçarizi, who accompany us on the visit to Zoja. They nodded in agreement with what Zoja said.

“When we went to Boga, there were some old musical instruments in the hotel and she asked if she could use it. She played the tambourine and we all had a good time,” added Paçarizi.

“I like to create the atmosphere and tell jokes. I don’t want to bother women with my concerns. I want to talk and make friends,” added Zoja, who grew up in a large traditional family.

“We don’t organize anything without her because she always brings positivity,” said Jaha.

Jaha thinks that society and institutions, local and central, should be much more engaged with the elderly.

Saranda Sallteku, director of Health and Social Affairs in the Municipality of Rahovec, said that this project can serve as a positive framework that can be used in the future. According to her, the Municipality of Rahovec supports projects aimed at recognizing and providing assistance to vulnerable categories. “These projects have a positive impact on the way people treat each other and are important for several reasons: tolerance and the restoration of relationships, the advancement of diversity, support for communities in need, changing stereotypes and helping communities,” said Sallteku.

Zoja prays that she will be healthy enough to invite her friends from the neighborhood for coffee. “Just to have someone to talk to a little, because I feel alone in the house. These girls do not hesitate to come and go out with me, but I can’t burden them with my concerns because they are still too young to burden and bore my troubles,” said Zoja, feeling guilty.

“No, we have learned a lot from her. Even when we take care of the elderly, we actually show respect for their efforts for us,” said Cena with a smile. Zoja seems pleased.

KSI’s “Don’t Get Old” report emphasizes that society and government in particular have a duty to ensure an appropriate level of care for every citizen from birth to death.

“With the exception of Albania, each of our neighbors, and indeed much of the rest of Europe, has an aging population and Kosovo is headed in the same direction. To take care of the 23% of our people who will be aged 65 and over in 2050, we need to plan and to work now in order to take care of them,” states the research.

While the Municipality of Rahovec has promised to look into the possibility of integrating the lessons from the “To Live Alone” project into local policies for the elderly, Paçarizi said that Hareja is trying to find donors so the project can continue.

Cena and Morina will continue to extend a helping hand to Zoja whether or not the project continues. They will continue to visit her, hoping that these visits happen more for good reasons than for bad reasons.

Fighting loneliness in old age

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