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  • NOAH Team

Hope to spare: social enterprise, companionship and the elderly

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

NOAH supporter Caroline Leroux writes about her experience as a volunteer and the importance of social enterprise for social pensioners.

When I decided to volunteer at NOAH, a center for seniors in Cape Town, South Africa, I was a bit apprehensive. I love listening to elderly people telling stories of their past but I get quite anxious in nursing homes. I’ve often witnessed a sort of weary stillness, at odds with some residents’ formerly cheerful demeanor.

As l walked through the door of the Woodstock-based NOAH center, the first thing I heard was a powerful baritone voice belting out a classical tune from one of the rooms and I almost wondered if I had gotten the address wrong. A group of seniors was concluding their morning exercise routine with a cheerful gospel. Several ladies were setting up a candle-making station in the communal room while another group started sifting through huge piles of fabric, sewing machines and patterns at the ready.

I remember standing there slightly dumbfounded, wondering how I could possibly be of service in this beehive buzzing with activity and laughter. Yet within minutes, I was sitting with a pair of scissors in my hand, cutting strips of white fabric for cushion stuffing and chatting away with the ladies.

It’s amazing what a difference productive togetherness makes.

The Promotion Santé Suisse Foundation published recently an excellent report, Santé et qualité de vie des personnes âgées, in which they highlight the benefits of social and well-being activities on elderly physical and mental health. A key reference is the Kessler et al. literature review, Gesundheitsförderung im Alter, which stresses the crucial role of social integration and autonomy in elderly health.

In layman’s terms, seniors who remain active and engaged in life often stay healthier for longer.

There are also unmistakable economic benefits to promoting healthy living for seniors.

The World Health Organization warns that the pace of population ageing is much faster than in the past and that all countries face major challenges to ensure that their health and social systems are ready to make the most of this demographic shift. From South Africa to Switzerland, everybody should wonder how to manage this.

According to the Federal Statistical Office, 26.4% of the Swiss population will be 65+ years old in 2045, compared to 17.8% in 2010, meaning health and elderly care costs could skyrocket. Therefore, implementing measures to support healthy and independent ageing and reduce the need for healthcare seems like a pretty good idea to mitigate this expected cost increase.

So how do we do this? Can we encourage healthy ageing efficiently in regions with high income disparity?

Let’s go back to South Africa. NOAH’s vision is to ensure that all social pensioners in Cape Town remain active and independent for as long as possible through purpose, participation and possibility.

Talk about a tall order; Cape Town social pensioners live on 1,780 Rand per month, the Government pension grant for people over 60. That’s around 120 Swiss francs or US dollars. Most importantly, it’s a drop in the ocean as the average Cape Town rent for a one-bedroom apartment is north of 9,000 Rand – excluding utilities. Now add the cost of groceries, transportation and other essentials. The math alone is enough to get scared.

Most of us would feel quite hopeless; NOAH members have hope to spare.

In addition to low-rent communal housing, the organization offers affordable health services, an array of social activities and wellness support. Last but not least, thanks to a flourishing Social Enterprise Development initiative, NOAH happily obliterates the lingering misconception that the elderly can’t contribute to the economy.

The SED initiative has 34 members and counting, involved in candle-making, soap production, second-hand shops, bread-making, take-away food, convenience stores and more. This initiative is the very embodiment of sustainability: economic sustainability thanks to additional income generation; social sustainability through companionship and contributions to the community; and environmental sustainability thanks to waste reduction and recycling.

Call me biased but I am in awe of these wonderful people. When an ageist society tells them they can’t make a difference, they politely beg to differ and go back to sewing colorful cushions and filling hand-knitted pouches with brand new bars of soap.

Even so, my first impression was skewed. I thought, well, it’s not fair that pensioners should still have to work to make ends meet after a lifetime of hard work but if they need to, this is a great initiative, they’re in it for the money as they should be.

I was so wrong and glad to be.

They love what they do and crucially, they’re proud of what they do.

They feel empowered. They find meaning and purpose, one vetkoek at a time. There’s more giggling and singing in the communal room than at summer camp. The energy and enthusiasm of the morning exercise routine would stun more than one personal trainer into silence. The Woodstock community flocks to the second-hand shop, the take-away stand and the convenience store. The SED initiative brings the community together, fosters companionship and breaks down the walls of elderly loneliness. Everybody wins.

So how do we scale this up? How can we strengthen these programs and ensure that the elderly maintain their well-being and dignity? Companionship, purpose and well-being go hand in hand; by creating tangible opportunities and tapping into their endless creativity, we can enable seniors to keep control of their lives and enjoy every new day that comes. Social enterprise and senior entrepreneurship really do work.

Next time you’re in Cape Town, make sure you stop by the NOAH take-away and get yourself some vetkoek even if you don’t know what it is. Trust me, you’ll love it.

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