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2009–2010

ERSTE Foundation Fellowship for Social Research Ensuring Income Security and Welfare in Old Age

Transformation of Social Services for Elderly in the Czech Republic/Active Aging in the Czech Republic: The Case of Centers for Seniors Jaroslava Hasmanova Marhankova


Jaroslava Hasmanová Marhánková

ACTIVE AGING IN CZECH REPUBLIC: THE CASE OF CENTERS FOR SENIORS. THE CHANGING REPRESENTATIONS OF AGING AND MEANINGS OF LIFE-LONG LEARNING IN OLD AGE. Abstract: The idea of active aging nowadays represents the widespread idealized image of old age. Czech Republic recently adopted this concept and defines it as its first priority in The National Programme for the Preparation for Old Age. This document closely link active aging with economic activity, lifetime learning and developing the potential of seniors. The objective of this paper is to outline how the current emphasis on the active aging as the desirable way of aging influences the senior’s perception of old age and their life-styles. Data presented in this paper are based on ethnographic study of two centres that offer leisure-time activities (for example educational courses, social activities, exercise programs, etc.) only for seniors and fifty in-depth and semi-structured interviews with their clients. These centres can be seen as places that strongly reflects the idea of active aging as the “right aging”. It shows that the clients of the centres share very similar features in relation to the social services for seniors and their own lifestyle. These seniors act as consumers that actively search for services and activities designed only for seniors. These activities and services function as distinctive mechanism of their time structuring. Information about these activities are shared among seniors and together with the participation on them help to create a specific community. This paper stresses this consumerist approach of these seniors and the importance of the services for the construction of their specific life-style. At the same time it outlines how the idea of active aging as “right” aging influence the self-conception of these seniors, their attitudes toward aging and their peers. The current context of aging is changing. On the one hand these changes relate to the socioeconomic background and medical progress which make the lives of so many people better and longer. However, these changes take place in the conceptions of old age and its appropriate form as well (Tulle-Winton 1999: 282). The expanding consumer society started to celebrate all novelties as the highest value whereas youth itself became a cultural capital (Gilleard and Higgs 2000: 62-64). Hand in hand with these changes the conception of “good” old age is also changing. This changed idea of old age is gradually more connected to the need to stay young, both in the sense of activity (Katz 2000) or physical appearance (Biggs 2002; Coupland 2007; Featherstone 1991; Featherstone a Hepworth 1991). As Katz points out (2000), nowadays activity represents an idealized image of aging. This is also reflected in the dominant gerontological discourse and in the approach of professionals who take care of seniors. According to Katz, 1    


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activity is becoming the key conceptual framework in the current perception of aging. Further, it also entails an ethical dimension as it clearly defines activity as a universally desirable condition. In this paper I will attempt to describe the aforementioned changes in the perception of “good” old age. It has become apparent that the discourse of active aging, and looking at the client as an active participant who has to choose among the services offered, influence the construction of lifestyles of some seniors. The data presented in this paper are based on an ethnographic study of two centres offering seniors-only leisure-time activities, and, further, on forty in-depth interviews with clients of these centres. These centres can be seen as places that strongly reflect the idea of active aging as the “correct aging”. This paper examines how this fact influences the clients’ subjective perception of what it means to be old. Moreover, it will also indicate that the formation of this lifestyle in old age is closely connected with the present trends in providing social services without which the model of active aging as described by my informants would not only be impossible, but also unthinkable.

CHANGES IN THE REPRESENTATIONS OF AGING Current demographical trends more than ever draw attention to the role of elderly people in the society. On the one hand, there exists a progressive tendency to perceive the aging population as a threat. These negative attitudes towards current demographic trends refer to the long history of negative representations of aging. For a long time old age has been associated with disease and passivity. As Haim Hazan (1994:20) points out, older people are viewed “as representatives of an abnormal social condition – in other words, unhealthy, even if from a strictly physiological point of view, they are well.“ This attitude towards old age influences also the ways of how the trend of demographic aging is depicted. The growing number of seniors in

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population is often constructed as a danger – a potential threat to a productive and healthy society (see for example Vidovi ová 2008). On the other hand, these trends have also raised the need to redefine the representations of aging. Elderly people now represent a growing segment of the population and are thus becoming constantly more and more visible. The growing life-expectancy together with the relatively low age of retirement raise important questions regarding the place of old age in an individual’s biography, as well as in the whole society. The representations of old age as a time of passivity, role-lessness and dependency are confronted with the need of taking an advantage of the expanding number of aging citizens. Therefore one should not be surprised by the appearance of attempts to redefine the image of old age in a positive way. One of the prominent examples is Peter Laslett’s (1989) conception of the third age. Laslett developed a model of four periods in the life path. The era of the third age symbolizes the time of personal fulfilment. The fourth period corresponds with the time of dependence and final death. Laslett mainly focuses on the third era that is, to a great extent, a product of demographic and socioeconomic changes. The growth of life expectancy together with economic well-being of the relatively “young” retirees create a new generation of retired people who can find new fulfilment in their old age. Their independence from the labour market and the considerable amount of their free time enables them to develop a new lifestyle. The third age thus constitutes an autonomous period of an individual’s life that Laslett depicts in a very positive manner as a time of opportunities and fulfilment. Laslett’s theory is often criticized for being normative and ignorant of the barriers which certain social groups face in their fulfillment of the ideals of the third age (Bury 1995). Regardless of its apparent limitations, Laslett’s conception is still important for the understanding of the current representations of aging. The idea of the third age embodies a notion of post-traditional life-course with an emphasis on self-development and individualism 3    


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(Rubinstein 2001). As Gilleard and Higgs (2000: 38) suggest, the third age demands an “active construction of “post-work” identity”. This notion totally fits into the modern “project of the self” – a continuous effort and responsibility to (re)define one’s self. At the same time, the third age is portrayed as a period when life is structured more freely and independently of traditional structures of work and state (Gilleard and Higgs 2000: 28-39). Polivka and Longino (2004: 7) define the future of retirement as “the postmodern dialectic of the new aging experience”. This experience has lost its traditional borders. Gilleard and Higgs (2000) thus argue that aging can no longer be understood by a virtue of common experience. The fragmentation of traditional structures that defined the experience of aging has led to the emergence of a variety of cultures of aging. The authors suggest that “a new stage of life is emerging – the third age – representing a distinctive and culturally salient position within an increasingly age-conscious society” (Gilleard and Higgs 2000: 29). This third age is closely connected to the character of the consumer society. The roles of productive processes and labour market are no longer important. The consumption of lifestyles has become crucial for the understanding of the different cultures of aging. According to Gilleard and Higgs, retirement now represents an arena of heterogeneous experiences linked to various lifestyles. The embedding of aging in the consumer society has also a significant impact on the representations of aging. The growing importance of lifestyle as a core mechanisms of the construction of old age has led to the “discovery” of elderly people as the new consumers. A growing seniors’ market is appearing and it offers a never-ending extension of the middle-age (Katz and Marshall 2003, Coupland 2007). . Thus, there arises a question whether the “the postmodern dialectic of the new aging experience” offers a real possibility to structure an aging experience of one’s own more freely or whether only new normative images of aging proliferate. As Rudman (2006: 196) states: “as ideal subjectivities encourage people with adequate resources to free themselves from ageist attitudes 4    


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and aging bodies, they simultaneously create a new set of obligations associated with being autonomous, responsible and active “retiree””. Although Laslett, as well as Gilleard and Higgs speak of the experience of retirement in terms of heterogeneity and a new opportunity for fulfilment, both of these visions are based on the idea of an active retiree, both in the sense of active lifestyle or consumption. Many authors (Andrews 1999, Hepworth 1995, Moody 2001) point out that the notion of activity now plays a crucial role in the process of defining “good” and desirable aging. Katz (2000: 140) for instance states that “the aged subject becomes encased in a social matrix where moral, disciplinary conventions around activity, health and independence appear to represent an idealized old age”. Active aging is currently one of the most frequently used terms in gerontological studies as well as in national and international documents related to the issues of aging. The idea of active aging is closely related to the changes described in the previous paragraphs. The current idealization of active aging also bears significant consequences for the construction of representations of old age as well as for the provision of social services and the subjective experience of aging. A number of studies (Gergen and Gergen 2003; Hurd 1999; Jolanki et al. 2000) show that activity as an image of positive aging is reflected in the actual lives of seniors and in the ways old people relate to the process of aging and to their peers. Therefore in the following part of this paper I wish to focus on the idea of active aging and its main premises.

ACTIVE AGING The successful concord between activity and aging as reflected in current social policies and gerontological approaches is tightly connected to the trends of demographical aging. The strategy of active or productive aging can be seen as an answer to the dilemmas brought about by the fear of the growing number of seniors in the population. In the 1990s the World Health 5    


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Organization adopted the term “active aging” to describe a vision of positive aging based mainly on the possibility to maintain one’s autonomy and independence as one ages. The World Health Organization defines the concept of active aging very broadly as a “process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance the quality of life as people age” (Active Aging. A Policy Framework 2002: 12). This very broad definition is just one of many. Most often, one can find rather narrower conceptions of active aging. For example, an article published on the website of the European Commission states, that in practice active aging “means adopting healthy life styles, working longer, retiring later and being active after retirement” (New Paradigms in Ageing Societies 1999).1 The term itself can be found in many other variations, such as positive aging (Gergen a Gergen 2003), healthy aging (Neilson 2006) or successful aging (Fisher a Specht 1999)2. Despite these little differences in the definitions, the ideas of active, positive, successful or healthy aging have always something in common - they are bringing about a positive vision of “good” aging. The idea of active aging transforms the aging population from a burden to a benefit (Moody 2001: 176). According to Biggs (2001: 311) activity today serves as a “legitimized fields of social inclusion”. Positive images of aging show seniors as autonomous individuals that achieve feelings of happiness and satisfaction thanks to their participation on the labour market and corresponding “productive” activities. At the same time, it substantially redefines the position of the aging subject. The various meanings of the idea of active aging (as well as other variations of this term) are based on the conception of individuals, who actively and systematically influence conditions of their aging. To age actively means to reduce dependency upon public systems of provision as much as possible (Neilson 2006). Aging is transferred to the                                                                                                                         1

2

Source: http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/soc-prot/ageing/news/paradigm_en.htm [accessed 24.3.2009]  For detailed  analysis of the semantic difference in these terms see for example Biggs (2004).  

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domain of an individual’s responsibility. By means of their active lifestyle individuals accept their responsibility for the quality of their life in old age. As Oanceas (2008: 1) states: “it is now widely accepted that passivity and disengagement increase the risk of chronic health problems in retirement, and that the promotion of social engagement among older people is a sensible component of public health strategies designed to contain rising health and social costs.” Activity is thus presented both as a way to a healthy and happy aging, and as an integral part of seniors’ responsibility towards themselves. It is at the same time viewed as something that can be and should be managed. Thanks to their activity seniors can withdraw from the negative image of aging and become “good” citizens (Hepworth 1995, Rudman 2006). At the same time, it substantially redefines the position of the aging subject. The various meanings of the idea of active aging (as well as other variations of this term) are based on the conception of individuals, who actively and systematically influence conditions of their aging. To age actively means to reduce dependency upon public systems of provision as much as possible (Neilson 2006). Aging is transferred to the domain of an individual’s responsibility. By means of their active lifestyle individuals accept their responsibility for the quality of their life in old age. The concepts accentuated by the idea of active aging, such as self-responsibility and self-care, weaken the contract between an aging individual and the state. Responsibility is shifted from the state to the micro-level social actors, such as professional experts and older people themselves (Phillipson and Powell 2004). The idea of active aging presents activity as a key to health and satisfaction in old age. Activity is at the same time viewed as something that can be and should be managed. Thanks to their activity seniors can withdraw from the negative image of aging and become “good” citizens (Rudman 2006). The idea of active, healthy aging and the promise of youthfulness through activity have to be seen also in the context of a “wider political assault on the risk of dependency” (Katz 2000: 148). 7    


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The emphasis on the individualization of the aging experience and its risks also manifests itself in the conception of active aging as it was adopted by the Czech government. The government has recently published two strategic documents which try to define a long-term policy related to aging. Both of the documents clearly reflect the idea of active aging as the “correct” aging. The National Programme for the Preparation for Old Age for years 2008 to 2013 (Quality of Life) defines active aging as its first priority. There is no comprehensive definition of active aging at any part of the document, but one can trace the trends of individualization of responsibility and the effort to formulate a positive universal vision of aging in many parts of the text. The document employs the concept of active aging in a rather narrow sense. Active aging is defined primarily through economic activity and a life-long learning process of seniors.

ACTIVE AGING, LIFE-LONG LEARNING AND AGING WORK-FORCE If one looks at all of the preceding definitions of active aging, one can see that active aging is in the social policy conceptualized mainly as a problem of the aging work-force (PerekBialas et al. 2006). The identification of active aging with seniors’ participation on the labour market and life-long learning can be understood within the context of the genesis of the concept. The challenges brought about by demographical aging result in the need to keep the senior population at the labour market as long as possible. The concept of active aging provides a conceptual tool for such social policy (Rabušic 2008). Concurrently, the strong emphasis put on these two aspects simplifies and narrows down the meaning of active aging and life-long learning as it ignores other dimensions involved in the concept of active aging – such as retirement activity related to leisure. The association of lifelong learning with the participation on the labour market (in the form of requalification and maintaining of a given qualification) make invisible other purposes of life-long learning. As 8    


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Jamieson (2007) points out, educational goals incorporated in the concept of active aging are often envisaged in terms of “enhancing productivity of older workers, and enabling older people to adjust to technological change.” It overlooks the fact, that educational activities can be, for example, a part of leisure. As Slowey (2008: 27) suggests, seniors “take part at life-long learning also as an end in itself, for the joy of learning, to pursue a long-standing interest or hobby, or to engage in a creative activity, or for combination of these reasons.” Many of the seniors want to socialize, meet new friends - especially after they have become widowed. The author then highlights that “education in later life has both overlaps with, yet differences from, initial and adult education” (ibid.27). The close association of the concept of life-long learning with labour ignores other forms of learning in later life that may bear specific meanings totally independent of one’s previous working career. The anticipated relationship between the labour market and life-long learning is also obvious in the narrow focus of the research dealing with the issues of life-long learning. The research in the Czech Republic, for instance, often involves respondents only under the age of 65 (Rabušic 2008, Rabušicová and Rabušic 2006, Czesaná a Matoušková 2006) or even respondents under the age of 60 (Keller and Tvrdý 2008). The scope of such research reflects the view of lifelong learning based on the human capital theory, according to which the goal of additional education lies primarily in the enhancement of the value of labour force (Keller and Tvrdý 2008, Slowey 2008). This view results in the narrow focus on the segment of life-long learning that is relevant for the context of the labour market (Oancea 2008). A significant group of seniors, who do not participate on the labour market, and whose motivations for learning, or the forms of lifelong activities they take part in differ from the aforementioned premise, are therefore neglected.

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CENTRES FOR SENIORS IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC AND THE IDEA OF LIFELONG LEARNING This paper focuses on a specific segment of seniors-oriented social services that are connected to the project of life-long learning and that address seniors, who no longer participate on the labour market. These services are mostly offered by centres specializing in senior education and senior leisure activities. In the Czech Republic such centres emerged especially in the second half of the 1990s and their aim is to enable seniors to spend their free time actively. These centres offer lectures, learning courses, exercise programmes and other activities. Their participants are solely elderly people. The operation of these centres is based on shared premises and the structure of their activities is very similar. Život 90, Remedium, universities of the third age or clubs of active aging in various cities are among the best known centres of this type in the Czech Republic. These centres can be seen as an example of the manifestation of the discourse of active aging. The centres strongly adhere to ideas of independence, self-responsibility and activity and they also try to offer a positive vision of aging based on an active lifestyle. These centres represent a very specific phenomenon in terms of the concept of life-long learning. The centres do not present senior education as an enhancement of one’s own qualification or in terms of practical purposes, but refer to the conception of time that is spent actively and in a meaningful way. For example, the civic association Remedium that offers educational activities of this kind, claims on its website that the “main goal of all offered activities is to sustain the quality of seniors’ life, to strengthen their self-confidence, prevent them from feeling lonely and from exclusion from the society after they have retired”3. The centre for seniors in the city of Vsetín that organizes predominantly language and computer-skills courses states in the identical manner that “their aim is to maintain both seniors’ physical and psychical                                                                                                                         3

Source: http://www.remedium.cz/programy-pro-seniory/programy-pro-seniory.php [accessed 25.9.2009].  

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activity as long as possible and to demonstrate that even old age has its advantages and that it can be experienced actively and with a smile”4. Such portrayals of the objectives pertaining to (educational) activities for seniors point out to the specific conceptualization of the role which this form of life-long learning plays in the seniors’ lives – as seen by the providers of the services. At the same time, there is almost no information available about the ways seniors themselves relate to these activities and why they take part in them. The aim of this paper therefore is to analyze the motives of seniors for their engagement in such activities and the role that these activities later play in their lives.

METHODOLOGY The data presented in this study are part of an ongoing qualitative research that is being conducted since 20075.

The method of ethnography of two centres that offer leisure time

activities (including life-long learning programmes) was chosen for this project. The investigated centres share typical features for the type of an environment depicted above and are situated in different cities with a different number of inhabitants. The research began in a Prague centre in September 2007. The second centre is located in the Zlín region, in a town with approximately thirty thousand inhabitants. The distinct locations and sizes of the centres were chosen because of the possibility of comparing the differentiations in the daily working of the centres and their clients. The research shows, however, that these centres present a very similar environment with a similar structure of clients.

                                                                                                                        4

Source: http://zlk.neziskovka.cz/detail/26660300-centrum-pro-seniory-ve-vsetine.html [accessed 25.9.2009].

5 Since 2008 the project was supported by funds from ERSTE foundation. The author would like to thank for this support that enabled the continuation of this project in 2008 and 2009.  

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The centre in Prague registers approximately six hundreds clients. The second centre has about sixty regular clients. There structure of the clients in both centres is very homogenous in terms of their education. In the vast majority, the seniors have secondary school education, frequently even higher degree. All clients are older that sixty years of age and have retired. The largest group in both centres are clients who are between sixty to seventy years of age. There is a distinctive group of older seniors (eighty years of age and older) in the Prague centre. These clients are concentrated in a special club for their age group. Women form the majority of clients of these centres. This fact cannot simply be explained by the larger proportion of women than men in older cohorts. Based on my two-year observation in the Prague centre and some shorter stays in another centre in the Zlín region, I estimate the proportion of men attending the activities of the centre to be at the maximum of ten percent of all clients (official statistics of the centres are not available). The intensity of the fieldwork in these centres varied in consideration of their distance. The most intensive fieldwork was conducted in the Prague centre during an intensive two-year period. I used the method of participant observation, conducted interviews with client of the centres and their employees and analyzed various documents of the centres. The data was supplemented with thirty in-depth interviews with clients and employees of the centre. During the research period I spent at least two days a week in the centre, at least two hours a day. As a volunteer I also had the possibility to actively participate in the running of the centre. The research in the second centre began in the beginning of 2009. With respect to the distance of the centres, this part of the research was conducted during an intensive one week stay. During the whole week daily running of the centre was observed. Additional twenty semi-structured interviews were conducted with the clients and employees of the centre. I obtained the

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permissions of the management in both centres to conduct the research. All clients as well as all employees who participated in the research were informed about the research. In the next part of this paper I will focus on two aspects of the representation of aging as it was constructed by the clients and employees of the two centres. First, I will outline the role that the centres play in the senior’s daily life. The special position of the activities in their lives challenges the idea of lifelong learning that connects the education in later life only with the enhancement of qualification. This paper show that the educational as well as other kinds of activities offered by the centres have much broader meaning associated especially with the time structuring and maintaining of social ties. In the final part the paper focus on the representation of the life in retirement that emerged during the interviews with seniors who participated in the centre. I wish to highlight the similar features of their lifestyle. These features strongly refer to the representation of aging as constructed in the idea of the third age and active aging that are discussed in the previous part of this paper.

ACTIVITES AND TIME STRUCTURING When talking about their retirement, my informants stressed the potential to structure their free time independently of the demands of their work biography. They often explicitly mentioned that they are able to work and that they feel no serious constraints because of their age regarding work, but they want to have some time for themselves. The transition to retirement for my informants was not a transition to old age but rather a transition to a new way of structuring their free time. On several occasions I heard a common phrase that referred to this change – “I don’t have to do anything but I can do everything I want”. The imperative “have to” was associated with the work biography; the verb “can” with their current lifestyle.

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Although my informants presented their transition to retirement as an unproblematic event, a closer look at their narratives reveals that this transition represents a more complicated process. The previous time structures of their everyday life disappeared from a day to day. This was a desired and welcome event. On the other hand, this event posed a new demand on my informants regarding their free time that suddenly lost its definition. Mrs. Alena (aged 68, center in the Zlín region) for example mentioned: It is an advantage of retirement that you can do only what you want to do and you don’t have to do anything. Sometimes it is an advantage, because you are not disciplined. But you, at the same time, suddenly miss the certainty – I have to go to work, I have to do this and that. You are the architect of your own time.

This change was in many respects perceived as a burden. My informants felt the need to somehow replace the disappearing structure of their free time. Although they presented their lifestyle as purely voluntaristic, at the same time they implicitly or explicitly stressed that they had to be active and take part in the activities. Mrs. Helena (aged 63, Prague center) for instance said that “if I sat at home after I had retired, my life would be only waiting for death”. Mrs. Pavlína (aged 63, center in the Zlín region) mentioned with regards to her health: “If I did not take part in these activities I would totally deteriorate”. Although the informants emphasized their freedom from the imperatives of “I have to” that were connected mainly with work and family responsibilities, simultaneously there was another imperative present which replaced “have to do this and that” with a more abstract “have to do anything”. In this respect, centers for elderly people offered an alternative frame for new time structuring. Specialized services for elderly people have become an important part of my informants’ everyday life and also affected the way how they view their old age. As I will underline in the 14    


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next part of this paper, these centers provided an important mechanism of time-structuring and alternative sources of self-fulfillment. It is very important to point out the relevance that these seniors associate with the specialized services for seniors. Most of my informant (that were randomly selected from the clients of centers) actively participated not only in the studied centers, but also in other various centers and activities that were aimed at seniors. Their participation in these activities has become a highlight of their everyday life. They clearly have a consumer attitude to the services on offer. When searching for information about leisure-time activities, my informants focused only on activities for seniors. They have thus engaged entirely in services for seniors. The participants identically suggested two main reasons for why they make use only of such services. First of them was their financial situation. Courses and activities offered by the centers are two even three times cheaper that similar courser in private organizations. This is mainly due to the fact that most of the courses are organized by volunteers. The second main reason that was accentuated especially by seniors attending educational (internet and language) courses was the age-homogenous social interaction. The centers are age-segregated environments. Only people of a certain age are allowed to participate. This segregation has a socially problematic potential. Age-segregation promotes ageism and insensibility to other age groups. Concurrently, participation in organizations that register members of different ages is one of the crucial mechanisms of age-integration (Uhlenberg and de Jong Gierveld 2004). Despite this fact, my informants perceived this age-segregated environment as an advantage. They referred especially to the more friendly and relaxed atmosphere and less emphasis on achievement. They often had had some experience with “ordinary” language or internet courses. This experience was mostly negative, however. My informants felt embarrassed among younger colleagues because they “were not able to learn as fast as they did”. Further, they 15    


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stressed that seniors have their own “special needs” related to the utilization of the skills (they often mentioned that especially in case of languages they will never be able to learn to speak well and that they want only to feel more safe abroad during holidays) and to the approach of their teachers (“they have to be patient”). Several informants also mentioned that they feel uncomfortable among other students because they are not able to respond to discussed topics that are related to young people’s interests. They often felt like exceptions that do not fit into the collective. Age-homogenous groups provided them with a safer environment for learning and expressing their interests. Due to the relatively recent unavailability of specialized services for seniors, my informants often had an experience with activities in age-heterogeneous collectives but after entering these centres, they engaged solely in the centres’ activities. This fact can suggest a potentially growing tendency to age-segregation in a later life. As I have mentioned, when searching the information about leisure time activities, my informants focused only on activities for senior citizens. They did not limit themselves only to one or two types of activities. They took on more and more activities. Their weekly program was filled up with at least one activity a day and the services on offer have become the “time schedule” for their everyday lives. The importance of these activities for shaping their lives can be demonstrated by Mrs. Hana’s (aged 71, Prague center) attitude, who regularly records all the activities attended in each particular month. These activities became so important for the informants’ everyday life that they often centered their other programmes around these activities. The activities represented fixed points in their daily lives. The schedule of activities is constant and planed in advance and thus serves as an important mechanism of time structuring as well as a motivation for activity itself. Course activities are paid in advance. This provides a strong motivation for regular participation. As one of my informants, Mrs. Zita (aged 74, Prague center), mentioned: 16    


Jaroslava Hasmanová Marhánková It (activities of the center) gives me some sense of continuity. I sometimes say to myself – I never missed the lesson, today I would rather stay at home. But I know that in the moment I miss the lesson, I will stay at home all the time. You have to be strict on yourself. You have to move as long as you can. This is the principle of courses paid in advance.

The motive of the necessity to “move” that is ensured by the fixed activities was apparent in many other interviews. Activities of the centers also guaranteed continuity with the lifestyle of productive age. Mrs. Olina (aged 64, center in the Zlín region) stated that “if someone does not have any activities in old age, he/she has no reason why to even clothe well”. The continuous presence of the activities in the centers ensured an important mechanism of daily time structuring. When describing their everyday life, my informants often mentioned the necessity to plan their day in advance in a relation to the program of their center. They often live in remote parts of the cities and have to plan precisely their daily schedule to effectively manage all the activities. Mrs. Hana mentioned: At the end of the day I’m really tired and I have to sometimes overcome myself to go to the city museum (where lectures for seniors are held) where the activities start at half past four. So I have to find also some activity that starts at three o’clock, because at four it is almost dark outside and that really demotivates you to go out. I think that laziness is my biggest problem. If you sit at home a lot, you are than just simply lazy and don’t want to go out anymore.

Mrs. Hana thus structured her daily program according to activities for seniors to make her daily schedule as effective as possible. She planned the activities in such a way that they ensured that she would stay active and take part in them. Staying active is not perceived a-matter-of-factly. This is something that one has to struggle for. Being active is a project that one must work on. Leisure activities for seniors on the 17    


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one hand stimulate this kind of work and on the other hand provide tools for ensuring that this project will be successful. The preceding quotations from interviews with Mrs. Hana and Zita do not only illustrate the role the courses play in the process of time structuring. They also highlight the different conceptualization of purposes for their attendance. In the interviews, these activities were mostly described as an integral part of an active lifestyle. The possibility to use the knowledge gained in the courses in the future as emphasized in the life-long learning policies was, however, marginalized. My informants stressed the motive of the “move” instead. This notion of the necessity to be continuously “on the move” points out to the internalization of the images of activity as a fundamentally positive moment of retirement. Despite the fact that many informants described the transition to retirement as a transition to the period when they could enjoy their free time without restraints, this freedom was in many respects limited by the notion that one simply has to do something. Courses offered by the centers were part of this self-disciplination.

INFORMATION, ACTIVITIES AND SOCIAL TIES Social services for seniors also represent an important component of daily interaction among seniors in the senior centers. Sharing information about activities for seniors constitutes an integral part of the daily working of the centers. Some of the activities of the centers (like social clubs) are especially devoted to debates about cultural events and social activities. The clients of the centers also discuss these topics on various other occasions. The clients often share this information in the beginning and the end of the lessons and activities. Such discussions are also a part of internet and language classes. The clients for example asked how to find information about cultural events for seniors on the internet or talked about their own experience during language courses (often not in the taught language but in Czech. This interruption was 18    


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tolerated and seen as natural). Highly appreciated was information about discounts for seniors at cultural events. An employee of the Prague center, Mrs. Bohumila, called such informationsharing a “chain reaction”. The Prague center occasionally offered seniors discount tickets to the theatre. Mrs. Bohumila said that tens of tickets are usually gone in a few hours, because “clients tell one another about it”. Sharing information about services for seniors is also an integral part of socializing. Through this information new social ties come into being. Discussions about social services for seniors provide a shared topic for conversation and an impulse for forming a new social bond. Participation in the activities often represents the initial moment of new friendships. These friendships are often centered around these activities and constitute their integral part. Mrs. Jarmila (aged 67, Prague center) said: You have to have four friends. One for traveling, one for concerts, one for….My old friends are terrible grannies. They have only one hobby - they walk thirty kilometers a day, but this is not for me. I said to myself I will not waste my time with them anymore. I cannot walk thirty kilometers so I had to shift them aside, because…this sounds really horrible, but they are not useful for me anymore. They don’t have any hobbies.

Mrs. Alena (aged 68, center in the Zlín region) also stressed that one of the most positive aspects of the center is the spontaneous forming of friendships. She mentioned that people with similar hobbies and lifestyles meet in the center. Someone always bring information about a cultural event and people in the center spontaneously organize their collective participation. The social bonds thus exceed the borders of the centers, but they are still very closely associated with the social services or cultural events for seniors. Mrs. Alena for example mentioned while talking about her English class: 19    


Jaroslava Hasmanová Marhánková We are such a stable and friendly group. We are very similar, we are…how to put it….we have such a progressive attitude. We are, as people called it now, “in”. We like it a lot and we even meet outside the English classes to practice English or just to talk in English.

Finding new friends was also frequently alluded to by the clients when asked about the reason for entering the center. However, the aspect of friendship was also very ambiguous. Most of my informants agreed that they have met many new friends in the center as can be seen in Mrs. Alena’s case. At the same time, these friendships were mostly perceived with a little disappointment. Although my informants stressed the positive sociable aspect of the centers, they concurrently pointed out to the relatively weak social ties that can be established in this kind of an environment. These friendships were established as a part of the activities and they generally did not go beyond their scope. As in Mrs. Jarmila’s case, there are friends for travelling, friends for concerts, friends for learning English….The temporality and instability of these friendships was seen mostly as natural, taking into account the character of the centers as well as the busy lifestyles of most of their visitors. Beyond this type of friendship, there was s strong sense of a “we” constructed among my informants. This “we” referred to the clients of the centers and more broadly to seniors who are active. It related primary to the willingness and ability to stay active in old age. As one of my informants, Mrs. Ludmila (aged 72, Prague center) said: “After some time you know everybody. There are all the time the same people at the activities. Soon you know all of them, at least their faces.” The word “everybody” in this interview referred to the active seniors. The participation in the activities thus created a kind of a community. The members of this community – seniors with active lifestyles – were at the same time constructed as a specific group that is separated from “other” seniors. While talking about seniors in general my informants often used very ageist

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images of aging. This “we” was very exclusive and were not applied to all seniors in general. The participation in the activities for my informants constituted a crucial mechanism of the construction of this group identity. Their ability to participate in various free time activities and courses as well as the capability to help actively with their realization served as a way how they distinguished themselves from the less active people or people with mental and physical disabilities. The participants perceived these less active people as “really” old. Activity thus became a central point in the construction of the identity of old people.

“CROWN OF LIFE” - THE SENIORS’ REPRESENTATION OF OLD AGE All of my informants associated the engagement in the activities of the centres with the transition to retirement. This transition itself was at the same described as something desirable and pleasant. Despite the fact that the transition to retirement is in the modern western society perceived as a social marker of old age (Sýkorová 2008), many studies point out that Czech seniors themselves do not connect their transition to retirement with their being “old” (Vidovi ová, Rabušic 2003). Similarly, my informants do not associate their retirement with such feelings. While talking about aging, my informants shared a specific conception of aging that was based on a very positive image of life in old age. They described their everyday active lifestyle as full of activities, continuity and searching for something new. My informants refused the image of old age as a period that does not bring anything new, and instead emphasized the image of old age as a time that should be filled with activity. Their representation of the life in retirement embodied the idealization of old age as a period of independence and free time as it is reflected in the conception of the third age. This image can be seen also in the narrative of Mrs. Anna (aged 75, Prague centre):

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Jaroslava Hasmanová Marhánková The time has been running by so quickly since I retired and really since that time all my notions of what my life should look like came true….I have to say that it is strange, but there are moments when I say to myself that I have never been so happy as I’m now, because I even did not have time to feel that way. I was employed, had children, both children studied and it was necessary at that time to take part at all these party meetings….

As Mrs. Anna’s narrative, other clients also stressed the comparison to their previous life biography. They often referred to their previous life biography to explain why they so much enjoyed their present lifestyle. They compared their current lifestyle to the period of their “productive” life that was centred around their family and work responsibilities. Old age in this model stands out as a time that can be really devoted to the clients’ own interests. This comparison was reflected also in the interview with Mrs. Petra (aged 69, Prague center): I always had a lot of hobbies and I always regretted that I could not devote myself to them, because I was employed and my job was quite time-consuming. So I was really looking forward to retirement. I retired when I was fifty-five because I had two children and the usual time for retirement was at fifty-seven. I felt unbelievably fresh at that time and I was not tired at all. I was so happy that I had time for everything I always wanted to do.

Retirement was perceived as a well-earned rest and a time for self-fulfilment. As Gilleard and Higgs (2000: 23) suggest, in the past retirement was perceived as “enforced choice connected to a decline of productivity or the need to remove older cohorts from the workforce”. Now it is constructed as a potential “crown of life”, primarily in terms of leisure and self-fulfilment. This does not mean that the clients of the centre did not express anxiety over the process of aging. There was a distinct fear present constantly during the interviews that manifested itself in the threat of health problems and in the worst cases the notion of dementia that would mean an end 22    


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of their current lifestyle based on activity. This fear was, on the other hand, also presented as a driving force for their activity. As Mrs. Milena (aged 72, Prague center) noted: “I have to enjoy life to the full while I still can”. The seniors’ activity - (most of the clients of the centers regularly participate in about three or more activities for seniors a week) - represented an important moment in their construction of positive representation of aging. It was the activity that was used to highlight the positive aspect of experience of old age that was contrasted to the stereotypical images of old age characterized by dependency, loneliness and passivity. Wearing (1995) states that currently activity provides a significant resource for facing up to stereotypical images of life in old age. The possibility of one’s self-fulfilment through active lifestyle creates, according to Wearing, a place for constructing a more positive picture of aging and for challenging societal images of old age by emphasizing the seniors’ abilities and productivity. My informants demonstrated their resistance towards the stereotypical image of passive old age by means of the activities that, as I have demonstrated in the previous part of this paper, are closely connected to the current idea of “good” old age. This does not mean, however, that my informants rejected the stereotypical images of aging. As I have outlined in the previous part of this paper, they often talked about the experience of aging in a very stereotypical and ageistic manner when speaking about this experience in general or when speaking about “other” elderly people. Activity in their case served the construction of an idealized picture of positive old age that was personalized and seen as exceptional.

CONCLUSION Current demographic trends have a fundamental impact on many aspects of the society. The prominence that aging gains in the debates about these trends also influences the way the 23    


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representations of aging are constructed. Clear ideas of what constitutes old age and what are its directions are being formulated both on nationwide levels and within individual organizations. An attempt has been made to show how the current emphasis on active old age as the ‘correct’ old age is reflected in the perception of seniors themselves. I focused especially on the environment of centers that offer seniors-only leisure time activities. The ideology of these centers and the scope of their services offer are markedly structured around the idea of active aging. The aim of my paper was to answer how this fact, as well as the principle of active aging that is currently constructed as “correct” aging, influences the lifestyles of the centers’ clients and their representation of aging. The preliminary result of my research shows that seniors attending these centers act as consumers that actively search for services and activities designed only for seniors. These activities and services function as a distinctive mechanism of the seniors’ time structuring. Information about these activities are shared among seniors and together with the participation in them help create a specific community. This paper stresses this consumerist approach of these seniors and the importance of the services for the construction of the seniors’ specific lifestyles. At the same time, it outlines how the idea of active aging as “correct” aging influences the selfconception of these seniors, their attitudes towards aging and their peers. The participation in the activities serves as an important mechanism of the group identity construction. This identity is at the same time constructed in the strict opposition to “other” seniors, who are not active and who are by these seniors perceived in a very ageist manner. This brings about a number of further issues; unfortunately, the scope of my research does not allow me to explore these issues more deeply. The general problem of inequalities that could be invoked by the inclusiveness of the model is worthy of our attention in particular if we consider the connection between the model of active aging and the current dominant ideas of what constitutes “correct” old age. 24    


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The motives for engagement in these forms of activities and life-long learning programmes and the role they play in the studied seniors’ lives also in many respects challenge the current conceptualization of life-long learning. As Slowey (2008: 22) points out: “Life-long learning has become a catchphrase of our era.” This strong emphasis on life-long learning goes hand in hand with the current demographic trends that highlight the need for flexible workforce that is involved in the labour market as long as possible. This basic assumption that lied behind the concept of life-long learning limits the visibility life-long learning processes that take part in retirement and that can serve other purposes that are independent from the labour market. This study shows that life-long learning programmes are an important mechanism of time structuring and social ties forming for a special group of seniors. They ensure continuity with the previous working age and are a part of self-disciplinatory practices that surround the idea of active aging.

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Transformation of Social Services for Elderly in the Czech Republic  

Transformation of Social Services for Elderly in the Czech Republic/Active Aging in the Czech Republic: The Case of Centers for Seniors by...

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