The Foundation “Zaczyn” was established in Poznan in 2011. At the beginning the profile of its activities was not clearly defined, the main idea, however, was to change and improve social policy in Poland. In answer to a general diagnosis that Polish regulations lack a comprehensive ‘policy for seniors’, the initiators of the foundation collaborated with the national Ministry of Labour in the establishment of a department specialising in policy for the elderly population (60+). The activities of the foundation also included the co-creation of social policy for seniors at the city level.
Owing to a grant of approx. € 28,000 the project ‘According to the Senior’ was initiated in June 2013, with a plan to operate for five years. The foundation will also apply for complementary funding from the City, as well as for a larger grant from the national government (within the programme of social activation of older people – approx. € 45,000). The aim of the initiative is to propose a new programme regarding social cohesion of elderly people, basing on the finding that state policy focuses mostly on the social and economic situation of population aged 60 plus, disrespecting the opportunities of this target group for further development, professional activation and participation in social life.
The project ‘According to the Senior’ is carried out in the districts of Śródmieście and Praga Północ. The representative of the Foundation Zaczyn illustrates the choice taken as follows:“These are difficult districts, especially Praga Północ. Let us take life expectancy as an example. In Praga Północ it is 12 years shorter than the average for residents in other districts”. The project’s key idea is based on the assumption that seniors can draw public attention by expressing their own opinions about general problems of the city and their district, for example by publishing press articles. Such an active attitude is a way of fighting the stereotype attributed to the elderly as a group in general. Seniors should be perceived not as those who complain about their situation, but as people who have a lot to offer, for example with respect to contributing to the creation of urban policy. In line with such assumptions, seniors are to be engaged in creating their own media, as a form of public participation.
The idea of an active participation of the elderly population in shaping urban policy developed simultaneously to the establishment of new legislation for local governments in Poland concerning the issues of “participatory budget” and the “law on senior council”. These legislative changes have become the leitmotif of the Zaczyn foundation in encouraging seniors to be participative. Both the creation of own media and the engagement in “participatory budgeting” have become very successful. Within the framework of the ‘According to the Senior’ initiative, 30 separate projects for “participatory budgeting” have been prepared. This involved discussions and joint work with the employees of Zaczyn Foundation, with the assistance of city officials, helping seniors to formulate their concepts.
The most successful and innovative result of activities developed around ‘According to the Senior’ concept is the development of a bottom-up model elaborated during the workshops. It has been agreed that the ‘Warsaw senior council’ should be established as bottom-up decision-making. This new organisation should be separated from the district councils, i.e. the lower level of local government administration, and organised at the city-level. This way it could have a much larger impact on the city affairs. The awareness of such a possibility i.e. having impact on the organisational structure of urban governance seems very promising for the elderly. Seniors as participants in the discussion understand that they can develop a bottom-up document and advocate its implementation. This way, elderly inhabitants of Warsaw will have a direct impact on city policy towards the seniors.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The initiative focuses on the aspect of inter-generational (demographic) diversity, socio-economic diversity, as well as on the question of social cohesion of elderly people. The interviewed representative of the foundation has identified two social categories within the elderly population addressed in the project:
“The first consists of well-educated people who were active professionally, and already function in different social networks – for example in the Universities of the 3rd age. This is a category of people who reject passivity. Its representatives can be treated as leaders and examples for the second category, which is not particularly interested in public affairs. That group consists of people who are discouraged and passive. The relation between the two groups is 20:80.”
The project aims at exploiting the potential of the first category and activating the second group, while creating complex forms of public participation. In this respect it tackles both the aspect of positive, as well as negative diversity. The issue of undesirable diversity is related to the unfavourable position of the elderly population, especially in areas affected by other social problems. Investigations show, however, that seniors are a complex and diverse population group, where diversity can be used as a potential. The active minority, when motivated, can take up the position of a spiritus movens in the activation of the group hesitant and resistant to any change. The experience of the project shows that both groups can profit from such an arrangement.
Main factors influencing success or failure
An undoubted success of the non-profit, group-based initiative is that it receives acceptance both within the local communities and in the media. In the beginning of its activity, the foundation Zaczyn did not receive any public financing, today it is treated as a trustful partner providing interesting projects and expertise and receiving grants from the City of Warsaw. The project ‘According to the Senior’ is considered a successful attempt which arises interest of the media, while convincing the public that the elderly are a valuable population category.
The success of the initiative is due predominately to:
– its organisational framework;
– high proficiency of its organisers and of many participants.
At the same time, the project has failed to engage a larger group of elderly inhabitants on a long-term basis. Most involvement of seniors can be considered as ad hoc and temporary, the foundation has not succeeded to recruit permanent collaborators representing older age groups. It may be assumed that this results from a still weak publicity of the project, as well as the voluntary character of participants’ engagement.
The social category of elderly inhabitants of Praga Północ represents an important civic potential which is still not properly used for the benefit of the urban community. This concerns first of all those retired professionals who represent a valuable intellectual capital. Well-educated, elderly people are easier to integrate with older people without education, which is not so easy with respect to younger generations. The level of education does not play such a role in social integration of elderly people as it does in the case of younger generations. This reflects the prevailing attitude among elderly people who tend to be more tolerant and accepting ‘difference’.
 a network of interdisciplinary centres of informal education designed for elderly, retired population