Award 2019 Nominee
Prisoners of the fourth floor
This piece describes a large - and growing - group of Poles that is virtually nonexistent in public debate: the elderly who haven’t left their homes for years for one simple reason - the multi storey buildings they live in have no elevators. The fourth floor is an exotic and sad world, reached by hardly anyone or anything.
Those most won’t ever see, because they haven’t left their homes for years.
Most of the mugs in Danuta’s kitchen have lost their handles. She often forgets that she’s holding a mug, and that’s when it slips out of her hand… and crack! When she wants to drink tea, she takes an empty mug and puts it on the table. Then she returns to the kitchen, pours boiling water into a thermos, hangs it on her walking frame, and goes back to the lounge. After all this effort, she does not have any energy left. The only thing left is to sit and watch the daily TV soap opera Na dobre i na złe (For Good Or For Ill).
Illustration by Joanna Karpowicz
“I can see what’s happening to me. I dropped the kettle not that long ago. The water was already cold, but if it had still been hot, I would have scalded myself. So now I don’t have a kettle any more. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed, when I go to pick up a book to read a little I manage no more than a few lines, and my eyes close,” she says.
Next to her lie copies of Augustine’s Confessions and the Catholic weekly journal Niedziela (Sunday).
Danuta is 75 years old, has lean hands, transparent nails and silver-white hair that’s pinned up as if she were a ballerina. She’s so tiny that when she sits at her dining table the furniture appears to be of enormous size. Everything around her seems larger than life… only a reproduction of the Last Supper is so tiny it’s actually hard to spot Jesus huddled among the apostles.
All colours appear brighter against the white-washed walls of her apartment. The lilac of Danuta’s jumper nearly hurts my eyes. The paint flaking off the walker, parked behind her, is intensively blue. The green and red of an angel’s dress instantly draw my attention – her neighbours received this figurine from an aunt living in the US, but they didn’t like it, so they passed it on to Danuta. She accepted the sacred gift in the same way she accepts the curse of old age.
“You can’t see yourself as a victim. Raging against the world won’t do any good,” she says.
When was the last time she went outside? Five years ago? Even then she didn’t know what made more noise, the creaky stairs she had to walk four floors down or her own joints and bones. It’s not surprising – the stairs and she are almost the same age.
“Even then she didn’t know what made more noise, the creaky stairs she had to walk four floors down or her own joints and bones. It’s not surprising – the stairs and she are almost the same age.”
A caretaker used to store her other walking frame on the ground floor. It was a walker with a seat, weighing a whole 37 kilograms. She would grasp it with both her hands and push it to the nearest shop. Sometimes someone offered to help her carry things, but how to respond to such offers when you can see how much hurry people are in? Seen from a walker with a built-in seat, each and every person seems to be in a hurry. She used to be able to traipse to the nearest shop, buy groceries, and go back home. For a healthy, young person the equivalent of this trip would be like climbing a mountain with milk and bread in a handbag.
There is a faded poster on her wall showing mountain peaks covered in snow and Scandinavian fjords, and next to that a framed photo of her granny in a Huculian folk costume. It was taken during a holiday in the Carpathian Mountains. Danuta too used to like visiting the Polish highlands, once upon a time.
But today she no longer dares to go outside. People like her are called “Prisoners Of The Fourth Floor”, being trapped by buildings which lack elevator facilities (due to old Communist Era planning laws). They don’t stand up for their rights because they simply don’t know what those rights even are. State-sponsored care workers know the ins-and-outs of this problem. They’re the ones who take calls along the lines of: “I can’t make it to the shop. I’m too high up the stairs, and the shop is too far below me.”
Illustration by Joanna Karpowicz
Danuta herself asked for help once. She told her social worker on the phone that she had osteoporosis, had recovered from uterine cancer, had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and that she was aware that it would only get worse. After that one call, a care worker appeared in person at her door. The aim of this visit was clear—to set up a plan so that Danuta would be able to stay living independently at her flat as long as possible. They agreed that she would be visited three times a week by a senior care assistant who would pick up her mail, buy groceries, do the cleaning, do the laundry, and—if necessary—wash her head, feed her, or change her diapers.
One of their initial duties however was to go to the outpatient clinic and get a copy of Danuta’s health certificate.
Receptionist: “This lady has to come and ask for her medical history herself.”
Caregiver: “She never leaves her house.”
Receptionist: “Then someone from her family.”
Caregiver: “She doesn’t have any family.”
Receptionist (outraged): “What do you mean to say she doesn’t have a family?!”
“Is it that strange?” Danuta tries to both defend her right to solitude and justify the course her life has taken. “I didn’t get married, I don’t have children, and my extended family is scattered all over Poland. But I’m not the only one living like this.”
She was born in 1942 – two years before the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. The tenement house she lived in was completely destroyed by the retreating German armies. Until the 1970s she lived with her parents and grandparents on the outskirts of Warsaw. Cold running water was their sole luxury. When her father died, and her grandmother required increased attention, they moved into the building in which she still dwells.
She worked in the Manufactory of Communication Equipment, then the “Wamel” Factory of Electrical Machines, in the Revenue Service, and in the Savings Bank. She has plenty of experience of loss. First she lost her mother and granny, then her job. Later on, she started losing the feeling in both her legs. The problems with walking began in 2000. Muscular degeneration. She was on a waiting list for hip replacement surgery, but her orthopedist finally crossed her off of the list because he considered the surgery unnecessary. Now she can only battle the pain.
She is sick and alone. The only walk she can take is from the kitchen to her balcony. No one brings her down the stairs or drives her to the park. She waited for two years for a place in a sanatorium, but when it was finally her turn to go she gave it up because she couldn’t get to the facility on her own. Not that long ago her walker got somehow stuck in the kitchen; she pushed it once, twice, a wheel came off, then she fell. She crawled through the room, reached the phone, but she didn’t have anyone to call, so she spent two hours climbing up upon her bed.
A month ago she decided to move out of her prison. Now she is trying to get used to the idea of change. She thinks of it as a holiday. When you leave for a month, there is a lot to pack into suitcases, but even more to leave at home. This time is different. She will be allowed to take her small chest of drawers made of dark wood and an old armchair. The chandelier will be of use to someone else – she will give it away, because she will not be back from these holidays, having finally applied for a place in a nursing home.
“Every organism gets old. You have to reconcile yourself with that fact when there is no other choice,” she says. “I’m deeply religious, and I know that there is more to life than the pursuit of pleasure. Everything, including pain, is the fate awaiting us all.”
Wooden stairs and celadon handrails. Pictures of cats and crocuses hung on the third floor of the staircase. On the second, there is a sticker “We wait for freedom.” It’s not certain that she will notice it as she leaves her home for ever.
Warsaw’s population keeps getting older – one-tenth of all those residing in the capital is more than 70 years old. Help for them can be found in each of the eighteen Social Welfare Centres. When one can no longer live on one’s own, it’s possible to ask for a place in one of the city’s fourteen nursing homes (seven of them for the chronically sick).
The Warsaw Office for Help and Social Projects finalized recruitment for a two-year project called Zaopiekowani (Lookedafter). Elders had rarely asked for help before. A “telecare” system was also introduced. Each participant was given a device to measure their temperature as well as heartbeat. The device informs appropriate services when something undesirable happens. A senior can press an alarm button and call the police for help. The cost of this program was a few hundred thousand euros.
In Poznan the telecare system is used by more than 250 people, and the aim is to provide this service to 550 other people in need of it. The same project in Warsaw covers 40 seniors – the number of those who are over the age of 70 exceeds 230,000.
Irena has been working in a social welfare centre for 21 years and asked for her name to be changed before speaking to me.
Before she begins telling her stories, she takes me to meet Alicja, another “prisoner” who has been living on the second floor for 59 years. In 2019 she will celebrate her 100th birthday – on the same date as Poland regained its own independence an even century ago.
She is wearing silver earrings, a ring with a gem, a silk neckerchief, sat at her table like an empress.
“So what if I don’t go out? Thousands of people don’t. My neighbours are no longer alive, but when they were here, they didn’t go out as well. For how long now? I don’t remember,” she says, and then launches into her own story of ageing.
“Six years ago a care assistant tried to walk me down the stairs, but she failed and pulled me back. And that’s how I ended up trapped here. In the meantime, I had two strokes. A pretty weak one and a serious one. Paramedics drove me to the hospital. I was supposed to stay longer but – honestly speaking – I preferred to come back home as soon as it was possible. What do I do during the day? I wake up at 4.30 am. I wash myself, make my bed, pray, do a crossword, I read magazines: Przegląd, Agora, and Newsweek. Mrs Basia comes to visit. She’s a caregiver. Apart from that, I look out the window. Oh, here I can see a tennis court and a park. When lindens and jasmines bloom, I can smell them. Back in the day you could spot wild hares and grouses, but they’re now gone. Sometimes I get up and go to the staircase to look out from a different window. Little birds fly close to me. Little larks, woodpeckers at times. I throw them some lard. My daughter-in-law drops by, my son might give me a call.”
“Six years ago a care assistant tried to walk me down the stairs, but she failed and pulled me back. And that’s how I ended up trapped here.”
“But it’s a fairly good situation, she has family,” Irena whispers to my ear. Some framed photos stand on a shelf: her mother and father separately. Her father has a moustache. Then her son and daughter-in-law. In the middle stands the only one in colour, which is from her grandson’s wedding.
“My grandson is all grown up now. I didn’t even go to his wedding. And he’ll have a daughter soon. He took a loan to buy a house outside of Warsaw, so he rarely visits. Of course, I’d love to see the house. I’ve seen it only in photographs. But, after all, I won’t ask them to carry me down the stairs. Yes, they have a car, even two. They’re young people, it wouldn’t cross their minds that I’d love to go outside. Mrs Basia always encourages me to stand up for myself, says I should demand and articulate my needs. She repeats that my grandson is a big man, that he could carry me on his hands. But how could I ask that he take me outside? What would it look like if I intruded on their privacy?” she bemoans.
“Obviously, we spend Christmas and Easter together. We celebrate Christmas Eve on the 23rd of December, and we eat Easter breakfast on the Holy Saturday. You ask me why?! We do it all one day earlier than the calendar dates, so they can then have proper celebrations in the comfort of their own home!”
“I could move to a small room in my son’s house, but it’d be bothersome. For some time, I had horrible diarrhoea. I cleaned up after myself. I prefer to be here because I’d be a stranger there, after all. The only worry is to die peacefully, not to bother anyone… You see, it’s awful when you’re unwanted, and you’re still kept alive. And you’re aware of the former. But you never know when it will come. That’s what I’m afraid of most. I have thrombosis. At any time, I might, you know…”
“Have you noticed that she doesn’t rage against her fate?” Irena asks while we are still at the staircase. “This is typical – elderly people round her take it for granted that this is how it has to be. In any case, to whom should they complain? And what good will it do? Her home will be passed down to her grandson—he should take care of her. He should carry her downstairs. Or maybe she could swap the apartment for one on the ground floor, so that she could step outside her own door? She thinks only about him, not about herself. Believe me, elderly people are of no use to anyone.”
We sit on a bench in a park which smells of blooming jasmines in June. Irena complains about outsourced companies hired by social services to take care of the seniors. There are no clear rules when it comes to requirements in becoming a caregiver. Having a basic education is enough. Many companies participate in a tendering auctions, where price is the most crucial factor in winning contracts. Social welfare centres often offer around 18PLN (a bit over €4) for an hour of caregiver’s work, though caregivers are then paid no more than 6PLN per hour (less than €1.5) because they are employed under temporary contracts.
Last year Tomasz Pactwa, director of the Office for Help and Social Projects, openly admitted in an interview with the daily Gazeta Wyborcza that “care services are the weakest point in the entire social welfare system.” This is the reason why City Hall established a Centre for Care Services (Social Warsaw in English), which has developed uniform standards of elderly care and will supervise their implementation. These will enter into force on February 1 2018. From that day on, each caregiver will be obliged to undertake supplementary training, and to comply with the code of ethical conduct which, among other things, requires them to address all seniors using the traditionally respectful honorific Mr. or Mrs. Moreover, a regular employment contract will become the norm, not a rarity.
“Very often we just can’t manage our employees,” Irena confesses. “A typical example: I know that a caregiver should be at one senior’s flat from 8 till 10 am. I come to check around 9, and she isn’t there. A senior says ‘Well, she was here but has already left.’ I go to the next home, and I hear: ‘She came, brought the groceries, and left… that’s enough for me.’ I rush to the next one, and it’s the same. Elderly people usually cover for our employees because they’re afraid. These caregivers are often the only people who visit them.”
There are obviously exceptions—caregivers who are committed and honest. But it’s rare. Irina continues, saying, “I asked them several times if they had completed a training course. The answer was always the same: ‘No, not a single one.’ The Ministry [of Family, Labour and Social Policy] should understand that care is the most fundamental element in a social welfare system for elderly people. A caregiver has to be qualified and sufficiently paid. For the entire 27 years our social welfare centre has been in operation no one has ever been interested in improving these services. Is telecare a solution? A life alert button will not replace an empathetic caregiver nor an efficient health-care system. Can’t we really afford to take care of the elderly who live in our towns and cities? We watch their lives fading from our eyes.”
At the Office for Help and Social Projects I look through past issues of a magazine titled Głos Seniora (Seniors’ Voice). It was co-founded by the Governmental Program for Seniors’ Social Activity. The program is meant to improve the quality of seniors’ lives through several kinds of activities. It is meant to mobilize, and Głos Seniora does exactly that: it encourages seniors to live life to the fullest. Regular columns like Stylish Senior Women and Senior Gardening are there to help this cause. Every issue features advice on how to take care of one’s health so that someday one’s grandchildren might say: “Our grandparents lived long and active lives.”
I read an interview with DJ Wika—the oldest DJ in Poland—Wirginia Szmy, who was born in 1938 and is an icon of active seniors. Asked how she avoids having mental breakdowns, she answers: “There are periods in which I don’t have the energy to do anything. I’d rather stay at home, but I’m aware that if I stayed two or three days, I’d stay there forever. My routine is it to force myself to be active – to go to the city centre, to the cinema, to the senior club.”
A report created in 2012 by the Institute of Work and Social Affairs (a research facility under ministerial supervision) stresses that equating dignified ageing with physical fitness might exclude those who are sick or require assistance. It says that “focusing too much on physical activeness of seniors (…) might create a false image and excessively positive model of ageing which is deprived of any illnesses and sicknesses. Such an image is not far from the everyday reality of being middle-aged and is not within reach of many seniors.”
Alas, copies of Senior’s Voice rarely reach “fourth floor cells”.
Joanna Mielczarek has been analysing the problems facing the elderly for 13 years. She sees the reality of their lives every Friday when she visits Maria, an octogenarian. And every other day when she directs the activities of the Little Brothers of the Poor Association. She works in Warsaw, Lublin and Poznań. When an open telephone line for seniors was launched in 2013, she worked twelve hours a week. Now she makes at least a dozen calls a day. Often she does it at night when there is no one at the office. Seniors leave messages on her voice mail. They say that they are lonely, that they want to have a friend, that they want to go for a walk. The association sends a coordinator to a senior’s flat to ask about their image of an ideal volunteer. And volunteers are asked what their image of an elderly person is. Around twenty new people offer to help every week.
“Seniors leave messages on her voice mail. They say that they are lonely, that they want to have a friend, that they want to go for a walk.”
“Many of them have a stereotypical image of a warm, kind, elderly lady who sits in an armchair, wears soft slippers, is covered with a blanket, cuddling a cat. But they are truly flesh-and-blood human beings who have their better and worse days,” says Joanna. The aim is to create real relationships that will last for years.
A relationship which is similar to the one she has with Maria who lives on the sixth floor. There is a lift in her building, but it stops at the top of some steps on the ground floor. Although Maria’s legs work well, her eyes do not. She started losing her eyesight gradually, and now she can’t see at all. She managed to learn which button to press, where the railing is, where the stairs begin and end, and how to walk to the shop. But she cannot overcome the mental obstacles hidden deep within. She is afraid of anyone who might be walking behind her. She is stressed because of the possibility of slowing down. A person whose actual presence is uncertain. Not wanting to bother the neighbours, she prefers not stay at home. She awaits every Friday and Joanna’s next visit.
Is her fear of bothering her neighbours an overreaction? Some of the seniors the Association looks after live in five-storey buildings without elevators in the districts of Bielany and Żoliborz. Stairs are often slippery and dangerous, but seniors manage to reach the ground floor. The association asked the neighbours if they could put small chairs on every half-storey. An elderly person would sit, rest for a second, and continue climbing. The idea was accepted in only half the blocks.
In the other half, the conversation went something like this:
Neighbors said: “It’s unnecessary.”
Volunteers: “She has been living here for 60 years.”
Neighbors: “So what? A caregiver can buy her groceries. She doesn’t have to leave.”
Volunteers: “But what harm can it do to you?”
Neighbors: “It’s unaesthetic” or “You could easily see that sick people live here” or “Someone will come and steal them.”
So Maria awaits Joanna’s visit.
“It’s not about buying potatoes,” Joanna explains. “I could do that for her. But the act of doing your own shopping is all about dignity. There’s enough time to carefully select every product she wants to buy. Enough time for Maria to hold tomatoes in her own hand, to touch apples, to decide which are the ones she wants to buy.”
Afterwards they drink tea, read letters, discuss plans for an upcoming week. Joanna always returns to the same topic: she reads out-loud the duties of a caregiver and asks which were fulfilled by the woman who comes to help with everyday life. Every time she reads the list, Maria seems to be totally surprised.
“Her caregiver doesn’t iron because she dislikes it. Doesn’t peel vegetables because she doesn’t want to. Doesn’t cook because she can’t. She arranges doctors’ appointments and vacuum-cleans when she knows I’ll be there,” Joanna reports. “We’ve noticed that caregivers fulfil their duties best when they know that a volunteer will come as well. Because there’s someone who truly cares about the elderly person and who won’t hesitate to stand up for their rights. I try to convince Maria to ask her caregiver to finally start doing what she is being paid to. But Maria is afraid of offending her and that it can only get worse. Besides, the one who comes to help her at this moment has already mentioned that in the past she would always resign when facing complaints about her work.”
The “fourth-floor prison syndrome” affects more than just Warsaw. Social workers say that the same problem is very much a reality in smaller towns, especially the ones industrialized during Communism—these are the places to which the rural population emigrated in the search for jobs. They moved into tiny apartments in hurriedly built tower-blocks. Now they are around seventy years old. Their children long gone, their lives awfully lonely. A report published in 2012 by the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw found that every third elderly capital city resident complains about architectural barriers which make it difficult for them to leave their homes. The most common complaint is the lack of an elevator. Nevertheless, they do not want to move anywhere. Their attitude is still largely influenced by trends and customs — “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
“A report published in 2012 by the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw found that every third elderly capital city resident complains about architectural barriers which make it difficult for them to leave their homes.”
In Warsaw’s Praga district there is a place commonly known as the “Neighbourhood of Homeless Lovers.” It was 1956 when workers from fourteen factories (including those from the Warsaw Factory of Motorcycles, Warsaw Automobiles Factory, the Factory of Electric Lamps named after Rosa Luxemburg) decided to establish the city’s biggest housing co-operative and erect the entire neighbourhood themselves. The newspaper Sztandar Młodych (Banners of Youth) reported: “Every honest and emphatic person has his heart warmed by the image of a shelter for homeless love, a kid’s corner, and a decent roof above the heads of our parents.” These were truly heartfelt words, seeing as many newspaper employees also suffered from a lack of available housing allocations. The name “Neighbourhood of Homeless Lovers” seemed too immodest, so it was finally nicknamed the “Youthful Neighbourhood.” Twenty-eight blocks of flats (nine five-storey and the rest three-storey) instantly filled with young residents. Most of them were childless or with children as small as the trees they planted in their own backyards.
While the trees grew tall and proud, most of the lovers hunched over in time. One-fifth of the district’s residents today are above 80 years old. One of them, Stefan Ciechanowicz, is one of the neighbourhood’s architects and still lives in the building he designed.
“We started from the principle that we were designing not blocks of flats but a way of life. We wanted you to move in and live until you passed away in the very same home,” he says.
He also mentions that they planned to build a primary health centre and, right next to it, flats designed for elderly people.
The idea was simple — special accommodation seniors could move into once they had surrendered their previous apartments. They’d stay in familiar surroundings and be under the supervision of a doctor and a nurse.
“You couldn’t imagine anything better than that, could you?” Stefan asks.
The idea never came to fruition. Communism collapsed, and young people weren’t bothered at all. They didn’t imagine that they’d get old.
The lifts turned out to be a bone of contention among the neighbours. It was possible to add them to five-storey buildings, but not to three-storey ones. Estate administrators found out that installing a new elevator shaft would cost around 315,000 Polish zlotys (€70,000), and thus, monthly rent would increase by around 16.00 zlotys (€3.5) per resident. But the residents living in the lower buildings protested against paying for the luxuries that would benefit others. 64 lodgers submitted official letters stating: “I do not agree with the proposals to install lifts founded by money belonging to all residents…”
The building administration abandoned the idea.
And because the neighbourhood is large, rumours started circulating.
A lady dressed in a white tunic, 50 years old, living in a lower block says: “Who told you all that rubbish?! I don’t want my neighbour from the fourth floor to have a lift? Nonsense! The truth is that the administration promised to install lifts just to get votes at an official residents’ meeting. No one even checked if it was possible. They told people porky pies – lies!”
Another lady, with a shopping trolley, 83 years old, reports: “I’ve been living here for 57 years. When choosing my apartment, I purposefully selected one on the ground floor, with a garden. I was pregnant and expected the baby to be born soon. If people bought their homes later or inherited them from their grandparents, why should I pay for their lifts?”
A man in his late 60s with a dachshund lives on the third floor. When he broke his leg in several places, he had to walk the stairs on crutches. But in spite of his troubles, he still sings a classic “bad-boy” song from the early 20th century: W tym jest rzeczy sedno, że jest mi wszystko jedno, już taki jestem zimny drań… (And that’s the heart of the matter, I should care but I’m a rotter, for I am a cold-hearted-cad)…
A young couple gets out of an elegant BMW, a Warsaw Uprising symbol sticker plastered to the trunk lid, along with the caption Pamiętamy (We Remember) on the bumper.
“Yes, it’s true. Residents decided at an official meeting not to install any lifts because it’s costly. No, I don’t know exactly how much…” she says.
I ask her what the seniors who cannot leave their flats should do now only because of the lack of lifts. She answers: “I don’t think that there are people round here who cannot leave their homes because they lack elevator access.”
There sure are.
Most likely it was Weronika who began the discussion on installing elevators. She owns a studio on the third floor. First, she asked her neighbours for medical certificates which she put in an envelope and handed to the administration. The envelope was pretty thick. She keeps a copy of each certificate in a binder. Here is one from the top of the pile: “Marianna, born in 1992: severe osteo-articular degeneration which makes it impossible for the patient to walk…” Next one: “Romuald, born in 1935: considerable mobility impairment…” Another: “Bożena, born in 1935: rheumatoid arthritis, vertigo, blurred vision, mobility impairment…” On every certificate the same statement of fact: “Cannot go outside.” On some of them: “Elevator essential.”
Weronika’s flat is full of pot plants, decorative plates and figurines. The bathroom has just been renovated and shines like a pink gem. No sign of dust. A book lies on the table. Its title: Healthy joints, better life.
“I remember our first day here. We had a wooden stool, a small Czech TV set, and a couch for two. My husband and I sat and cried with happiness for half an hour. Did I think back then about any future troubles with being able to go outside?” Weronika cries but quickly wipes away the tears. Then she says with unexpected confidence: “I played volleyball, danced… boys adored me. I’m 77 now, the skin of my cheeks still taut, yet some energy is still inside me. When Zosia, who lives upstairs, sees me on the staircase, she kisses me and asks for these elevators. But there’s nothing I can do.” She cries again and after few seconds stops herself crying any further. “Let’s go to Zosia. I’ll show you what things really look like.”
Fourth floor. Two elderly people: Zofia and Romuald. He has not been outside for four years.
“Romuald keeps falling over and is bruised all the time. He’d love to go downstairs. Yes, I have a wheelchair… but what of it? I can’t manage to use it,” Zofia’s voice trembles. “We used to live in a worker’s hostel. Four of us crammed into a 9 sq.m room. I accepted the first apartment which they offered us. And now…” She shows us photographs of her and her family. “These are my babies. My girls. That’s how I remember them, always smiling. God then took one after another. And my husband’s sick.” She bursts into tears.
Weronika sobs and whispers to me: “You see, the girl does what she can with the last of her strength. Just look at how tidy her home is! She’s suffering from vaginal prolapse because she keeps carrying heavy bags. They wanted to keep her at the hospital, but he’d die here without her.”
“The doctor told me that it’s too late for surgery. That I’m 88. That I have to rest. When I go to the supermarket, I tell my husband: ‘Stay in the chair. When I’m back, I’ll give you something as a reward. Coffee or chocolate.’ Then I leave.”
We go one floor below. An 82 year-old woman with tired eyes opens the door for us.
“Can you please just show your little hands, neighbour?” Weronika kindly asks. She’s holding a potato between fingers twisted like tree roots. “I have an incurable rheumatic fever and a broken spine” she explains.
We move on. Second floor.
“I want to show you what life in a building without an elevator really looks like,” Weronika explains.
Three elderly people sit in a dark room in front of a TV set. Maria (105 years old) is sat in an armchair, her daughter Halina with her husband Tadeusz (both over 70) slumped on the sofa.
“It’s quite a miserable life,” Tadeusz says. “This apartment has become an old people’s home.”
Halina chimes in. “Mum only walks to the bathroom and back. With a walker, of course. Not more than five years ago we were together in our summerhouse. But she fell, and they replaced her hip. Since then she hasn’t been outside at all. She tells me all the time: ‘I’d love to go to the pharmacy with you…’ But she can’t.”
“When we were young, we built the road you see outside our window. We are somehow becoming a part of history now, Miss,” Tadeusz finishes.
The next floor down.
“My neighbour at no. 7 won’t open the door. She’s just been through more spinal surgery.” Weronika rings a bell next door. For a long while there is only silence. Finally, an elderly lady, visibly uncomfortable and confused by our presence, opens the door. She straightens her skirt and buttons up the last button of her shirt. She can hardly stand.
“It’s difficult to walk these days,” she apologizes and doesn’t say anything else.
Weronika sums things up before saying goodbye. “It makes you cry when you see it, doesn’t it? I myself have troubles with sciatica and my spine. My doctor said not to lift more than 2 kilos. If I go shopping, I take my trolley with me and then I drag it up the stairs. When I return home, I’m covered in sweat. This is the life of old people. Tragic.”
But not everywhere. There’s an apartment in Warsaw where it’s possible to see elderly people’s plight from a brighter perspective. It is located on the ground floor of a building equipped with a lift. Hydrangeas grow next to freshly cut grass all across the courtyard. Jan Cieśla and Agnieszka Cieśla, both architects, designed this apartment with the future of their ageing parents in mind – both of whom have always loved the seaside. This is the reason why the walls are painted blue and white – colours they’ve always associated with wavy seas. Vacation pictures decorate the walls, though for now their parents are both well enough not to have to think about moving into this specially-designed space.
“We made a mistake. A P-R mistake. We told them that it’s an apartment for elderly people” tells Jan. It explains why it’s sat empty ever since then. Nevertheless, everyone is welcome to make an appointment, to come and take a look around.
They call the armchair “the command centre.” A little push is enough to move it around. To lift the footrest one has to press a button. Both legs go up, and one feels like lounging on a sunbed. Just as it was back in the days when sunbathing used to bring their parents great joy.
There’s also a couch. The young always sit, while the old usually fall into it – but not here. Seniors will not hit their heads against any walls and will get up easily.
In the bathroom there is neither a bath nor shower cabin, just a comfortable chair with a shower head on the wall. A shower curtain is heavier on its bottom so it will not stick to a wet body. The floor is heated to prevent slipping. And even if one’s legs fail, one can grasp the curtain which works like an ABS system in a car—it will slow down a person’s fall by gradually detaching itself from the rod.
The toilet seat has been specially designed, too. It’s as comfortable as the armchair in the living room (though it doesn’t move). The armrest has a couple of buttons built into it. The first flushes the toilet. The second turns on the bidet with warm water. The third activates a dryer. The forth is to eliminate unpleasant smells.
The kitchen: the height of the countertop can be regulated. Cupboards open with a press of a button.
The hall: big enough so one can easily greet all guests.
The bedroom is equipped with a mattress which adjusts itself automatically to body temperature. The nightstand has a place for a phone which can be charged wirelessly. The curtains open automatically when the sun rises. The lighting changes depending on the time of the day – becoming warmer in the evening, before going to sleep.
Developers, seniors, and social workers make appointments to view the apartment. They look, touch, and ask: “How much does this cost? And that?” The armchair—from which one can command the world—is 8000 PLN, or around €1850. The bed with the mattress: 7600 PLN (€1760). Shower chair: 4000 PLN (€930).
“It’s not necessary to have everything installed all at once. We just want to show that the best solutions for seniors is to live independently as long as possible. In an apartment equipped like this, it is more than possible. Expensive? A nursing home in Warsaw costs more or less 5000 PLN (€1160) for a month-long stay” Jan explains.
He makes the point of stressing that for everyone above 65 years of age a change of dwelling is a nasty shock to their lives. This is the reason why the Ideal Senior’s Apartment—as he officially calls his project—is aimed at younger seniors and those aware of impending old age.
“We should design our apartments in a way that allows us to remain independent,” he says. “Only then will our sense of dignity not be at risk. The moment you are forced to be looked after by others like a child is the beginning of that slippery slope. There can be no doubt that the Prisoners Of The Fourth Floor should be helped, and their lives should improve. But the problem is that they have already entered a vicious circle,” he added before I left.
Halina, 86 years old, hasn’t heard about the Ideal Senior’s Apartment. She worked in the bookshop at the Warsaw University of Technology for half a century. Having retired, she had regularly been meeting her ex-colleagues. Yet for the past two years they haven’t been able to visit her because she lives on the fourth floor. She argues about it with her husband all the time. Despite the fact that he died 28 years ago.
“When we were assigned this apartment, I asked him what would happen when we get old. He answered: ‘Don’t worry. We will change the place before this time comes.’ Often I look at his photograph and I complain to him: ‘And what? You lie somewhere comfortably, and I have to struggle with living here.’ After the Uprising of ’44 there were only piles of rubble. We went down to the streets and cried. People lived in basements. There was water and electricity and nothing more. Here I have a gas cooker, central heating and lavatory. It’s beyond belief,” she says quietly, but with courage in her voice.
Her hands shake, and every move she tries to make seems to be a separate problem. Nevertheless, she somehow manages to put white-and-red zigzag napkins, cake plates and cups on the table. Then she carefully places some biscuits on a serving plate. “A small fork and a little spoon.” Looking at her, I also want to speak using diminutives. I would say that her tiny sweater has a small collar and little buttons.
When her husband died, she decided to do what the designers of the Ideal Senior’s Apartment advise: prepare for getting old. She changed the tiles for ones that are easier to keep clean; installed plastic-framed windows which she does not have to disassemble for cleaning, and the bath for a lower edged model, easier to get in and out of.
“But I never imagined that my back would hurt so much…” she says, weeping a little again. Still, she finds enough optimism inside of herself to tell me a joke: “After the War, I couldn’t have a bath because I didn’t have one in my home. Now I do, but I can’t get into it. Honestly, I’d really like to renovate this flat, but I don’t have anywhere to go during the building work.”
“Why didn’t you exchange your home for another on the ground floor, ma’am?” I ask her.
Halina keeps silent for a longer while.
“I didn’t expect to live so long after my husband’s death. I was so depressed that I thought the best thing to do was to die too. But I didn’t die, and it’s not that easy nowadays to change apartments – who’d be interested in swapping with me? No one would want to change their life to make it worse.”
She shows me a notebook in which she keeps track of all her doctors’ appointments. The dates are scheduled a few years ahead. Every month she has at least six appointments. Each month has its own page. She’s had surgeries on both hands, a mastectomy and also suffers from back problems – for the past five years she’s regularly been visiting the hospital to get a “nerve block” procedure done; an injection which relieves pain by desensitizing nerves. It helps for a little while.
When she says that she sometimes cannot use public transport because it is too far away from her front door, forced to take taxis instead, Halina starts crying. And immediately apologizes for it.
“You know, the worst sicknesses or diseases are nothing when you compare them to war” she says. Halina had eight brothers and three sisters. All are now gone – she was the youngest. “I tell myself that if everything was okay and there was no pain, then everyone would like to live a thousand years. These things have to happen so that people lose their will to live.”
The Senior Festival took place in September 2017. Nine days, 360 events in nearly 150 locations all over Warsaw. The program included:
– Japanese calligraphy workshops.
– “Smartphones hold no secrets”. Individual computer classes.
– Ballroom dancing with seniors – free entry!!!
– “M like Motivation” workshops for those who want to reach their goals.
“Sometimes our volunteers are older than the seniors they visit,” says Joanna from the Little Brothers of the Poor Association. “Healthy and energetic seniors take care of those less independent because they genuinely understand what it feels like to be alone or when one’s life loses meaning. And besides, many elderly people suffer from depression. They would not go to see a psychiatrist in a million years.”
According to Poland’s Central Statistical Office, in 2016 exactly 646 Poles over 70 years old took their own lives.
Translated by Wojtek Wieczorek / edited by Marek Kazmierski.