The elderly as a resource

Pensioners in the voluntary sector are an asset to the local community. They help in everyday life, organise events and drive development. This is clear from the pilot study "The municipality and the elderly – mutual dependence?" that a group of scientists conducted in cooperation with the municipality of Heby.

The research team consists of Susanne Stenbacka, Jan Amcoff and Ann Grubbström from the Department of Social and Economic Geography and Cecilia Bygdell from Upplands Museum. The study was funded under the program Verification for collaboration (VFS in Swedish) that UU Innovation coordinates. Through a dialogue meeting, a briefing and in-depth interviews with four households, the researchers examined the commitment of the elderly to other elderly people and to the local community in Heby. In parallel the group has also looked at the availability of demographic data to determine how the population is changing and evolving.

Heby is in many ways a typical rural municipality in Sweden, with an aging population who are active in local groups. One aim of the study is to look at older people as a resource in a context where they are often described as a problem.

”We want to contribute to a broader view of the elderly”, says Susanne Stenbacka responsible for the study.

Susanne Stenbacka, senior lecturer at the Department of Social and Economic Geography.

The study is interested in a type of everyday help that often is not included in home services. It could be going out walking with someone who feels lonely, help putting up curtains, a lift to the grocery store, shovelling snow, or walking the dog. The study is also interested in older people as a resource for children and grandchildren, for neighbours, within politics and rural development.

Cecilia Bygdell has previously studied the voluntary organisation Väntjänsten in Heby.

”Väntjänsten is often described as covering for the public sector’s shortcomings. But those who are involved perceive themselves as compensating for the lack of help from relatives”.

How great is the need in the community for voluntary organisations involving the elderly, and how will it look in the future? A first answer can be found in the quantitative part of the study that Jan Amcoff is responsible for. Fewer children are being born, family members and kin are becoming fewer. At the same time, we move around much more today than in the past.

”There's good data for finding out where people reside and for making population projections. But it's harder to find good statistics on how families are connected far back in time. This also applies to people with a foreign background”, he says.

Overall the pilot study confirms the issues that the group want to investigate further. In November they expect to hear whether they will receive over three years of grants from the Swedish Research Council. Then the scientists want to look at the factors that support and those that will stop older people's involvement in the local community. For example, what do physical environment, design of housing, availability of transportation and distance mean to the family?

 ”To seek funding from VFS has served as an initiator for us. We were forced to articulate very clearly what we wanted to do in a first phase. The knowledge from the pilot study is part of the research application and improves it”, says Susanne Stenbacka.

Björn Dahlström is the head of the area related to the elderly in the municipality of Heby. He thinks that cooperation with universities brings new perspectives.

- ”Among the most interesting aspects is to think about what we are doing to see the elderly as a resource. We also want to understand whether we really offer what older people want”, he says.