Maude Fröberg, Karlskrona, Sweden
Only 20 Swedish crowns for an ordinary hug and 100 for a bearhug (approx. US$ 15, € 11, Sfr 18) … or why not send a 'chain hug' via your cell phone? Those are a few of the hugs for sale by the Swedish Red Cross - a Christmas holiday campaign to fight loneliness among the elderly and other groups. Celebrities and common people all line up for their hugs, to make Swedish society less indifferent to involuntary isolation.
"Some live in great solitude, without anyone to talk to or take a walk with. Many who take care of their sick family members have no time for themselves. Voluntary services by the Red Cross are important to break this isolation," says Bengt Westerberg, President of the Swedish Red Cross and Vice President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
In Sweden, the shop windows reveal that it's the holiday season, which is mainly about being together. But if you are alone, the season can increase your loneliness. In a former military home, a red brick building on the town square in the city of Karlskrona in the south of Sweden, an enthusiastic group of 100 Swedish Red Cross volunteers have taken up the battle against involuntary isolation and loneliness.
One of them is Sten Swedlund, admiral and former Federation head of delegation. He has made the journey from the Balkans and Baghdad to visit the elders in Karlskrona. "My decisive impression is that elderly are always the ones neglected," he says. "This is also true for Sweden, where, as the population grows older, we will have more lonely senior citizens."
According to official Swedish statistics, the number of 80-year-olds will double in 2030, a fact that points to an increasing need for fellow human beings to visit them, since local community resources will be far from sufficient. "The Red Cross is truly needed, but as a complement," says Sten Swedlund. "We are not here to replace the social services; instead we replace the husband or the wife who are deceased, or the children, far too busy these days to take time to visit their parents. In short, we are 'fellow human beings'."
Another one of these 'fellow human beings' is Gunvor Möller. She has worked as a volunteer since 1982. Several of her visits to elderly people take place in communal homes. "Contrary to what you may think, it's a really quiet place. You seldom see any relatives or friends of the people living there. My visit therefore soothes the solitude, even if we just sit around and chat, or go for a walk or read." To Mrs. Möller, professionalism is the key to successful visits. "The visit must always be carried out in accordance with the wishes of the person visited. And you must never bother them with your own problems."
A few blocks away from the town square, Britta Westerdahl has just put on the coffee and lit a few candles. In the refrigerator, a cake is waiting for Inga-Britt Gullbrandsson from the Red Cross, who arrives for her weekly visit. "Truth be told, I didn't want any visitors. The idea was my daughter's," Mrs. Westerdahl says with a slight embarrassment. "But now, we have become real friends." Mrs. Guldbrandsson nods. "Indeed, I still remember the first time we met. We sat together on the balcony," she recalls.
The right to choose the visitor is something that all elders are entitled to. A first visit is undertaken by the volunteer leader in order to lay down an agreement on when and how the visits are to take place. Then a volunteer is introduced to the person who will receive the visits. The volunteers, for their part, are offered training in social work, first aid and psychosocial support.
Mrs. Westerdahl and Mrs. Gullbrandsson confirm that they enjoy spending time together, and that they also discuss the issue of getting older. "In my bedroom, I have photos of my family and the grandchildren. All of whom I say goodnight to every night, since you never really know what's going to happen," says Mrs. Westerdahl.
Mrs. Gullbrandsson agrees. "That's something you don't understand until you get older," she says. "In my case, I always carefully fold my clothing, so everything will look neat and tidy. Just in case…" Apparently, loneliness is less of a burden when shared.
How the visits are regarded and influence those who receive them is also subject to academic interest in the region. The Blekinge Institute of Technology has established a fruitful cooperation with the local branch of the Red Cross which, so far, has resulted in lectures and two academic papers.
The hub of the work is the former military home, where volunteer leader Britt-Marie Wheeler and Ninnie Rylander from the municipality of Karlskrona are working side by side, a telling example of how the future of the care for elders might look in the future. "The need for visitors currently exceeds the numbers of volunteers, and therefore we must recruit many more," says Ms. Wheeler.
Today, 50 per cent of the volunteers are retired, and 50 per cent are students and working people. "We are very proud to have attracted so many young people," says Sten Swedlund. When asked about the secret behind this successful voluntary project, Mr. Swedlund stresses five factors: recruiting enough volunteers regularly, ensuring the quality of their work, working in partnership, encouraging contacts with the media and other partners, and appointing an advisory committee. There is no doubt that the elders in Karlskrona are in good hands, as compassion and humanity are combined with professionalism, and supported by the 'selling hugs' campaign.