With 2012 set to be the EU Year of Active Aging, Lithuania’s elderly grunt about demise

  • 2011-09-14
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

Lina Businskaite says pensioners lack a youthful outlook.

KLAIPEDA - Can you picture a couple of Lithuanian septuagenarians sipping bourbon in a cozy romantic bar, settling the bill graciously, slipping out of the bar for a hand-in-hand stroll on a main promenade before they walk back home for some youthful hanky-panky?
I can’t.

Is that just a too remote, or unbelievable, scene in Lithuania? In Lithuania, you are likely to encounter an “all-the-world-sucks” complaining retired nagger or vixen, railing against the government, bad neighbors and life itself.
Is being a retiree really so bad in Lithuania? With the number of retirees rapidly growing throughout the European Union, where statistically every fifth EU citizen is a 60-year-old or older senior, the EU, addressing the issues of seniors, has announced 2012 as the Year of Active Aging and Generation Solidarity.

While Western seniors are preoccupied with the date and its activities, their Lithuanian peers are more concerned about the possible, even Maya-predicted, 2012 cataclysms than the Active Aging and Generation Solidarity.
“To be honest, I have heard something obscure about it. However, Lithuanian pensioners are most worried if the government will keep its promise to return the 263 million litas it has taken away from us when carrying out its austerity measures,” Petras Ruzgus, chairman of Bociai, an organization uniting over 80,000 retirees in the country, stressed to The Baltic Times.

In a country where the average pension hovers at 766 litas (222 euros) per month, surpassing only the EU pension record lows in Romania and Bulgaria, expecting the elderly to suddenly become jubilant about their lives probably makes no sense. “Lithuania is not only a country in Middle and Eastern Europe with one of the largest armies of working people supporting its pensioners, but it is also a country where the pensions are one of the smallest in the region. Pensions make up only 37 percent of an average salary in Lithuania, when the ratio in neighboring Poland is 54 percent, allowing Poles, receiving average pensions of 432 euros, to enjoy a decent retirement. The disparity makes me wonder whether Lithuania appropriately heeds the needs of its elderly. It also raises some serious questions over the government’s unwillingness to create an effective second-stage pension saving system that works well elswehere,” Sarunas Ruzgys, president of Lithuania’s Investment and Pension Fund Association, says.

Considering the deteriorating demographic situation, he says, the future for the increasing army of pensioners can hold more pessimism than optimism. “With emigration’s scope, the worsening demography and dim economic outlook in mind, there might not be enough working people to earn the pensions for the future elderly,” Ruzgys maintains.
Following the aging Europe, Lithuania has recently hiked its pension age to 65 years. However, in doing so, it has forgotten that Britons or the Swiss are generally much healthier at that age.

In a recent survey, Lithuanian pensioners, asked what pension would make their senior years respectable, over 40 percent of the respondents answered it has to be over 1,500 litas. “Lithuanian seniors do not need large pensions, as we are not as much pampered as the pensioners in Germany or Great Britain. Given large pensions, most of us would hardly change our lifestyle and would rather save for the future of our children or grandchildren. That is how the mentality of Lithuanian retirees is,” Ruzgus asserted.

Daiva Ziuramskaite, director of Tarptautiniai darbo kontaktu tinklai (International Job Contact Network), a public institution that recently organized an international seminar for elderly women, noted that youthful thinking among the elderly is attributed to “Those who are willing to re-discover themselves after turning 60.”
Having dealt with the participants of the seminar, a bunch of youthful, robust and zest-full elderly Swiss, German, Italian and Swedish women, she admits to have been pleasantly astonished by their exuberance and the extremely positive life outlook, characteristics that Lithuanian pensioners often lack.

“If I were to look at how the seminar was started, I do not see elder Lithuanians writing a letter to seminar organizers and going to participate abroad. The differences among their and our pensioners on a level of daily life are also awe-striking. For example, the Swiss women, who attended the seminar, do not raise their grandchildren, but gather for numerous seminars on wine or cheese tasting, or a healthy lifestyle. They are joyful, frisky and no way see themselves being enclosed in among four walls at home,” the public institution director pointed out.

Another community of retirees, in Italy, she relates, has recently started an initiative they call “Bank of Time.”
“The idea of the community appears amazing to me. One member of the community repairs shoes, for example, while another fixes an electric appliance or mows the grass for his other peers. The community also has its doctor, who tends to medical needs of the community members, and he, in turn, receives necessary services from other members. The community is so intertwined, efficient and engaging that I am amazed at its simple but unique mechanism. In addition, the community members exchange, for variety, their residencies. I can hardly see this happening in Lithuania,” Ziuramskaite acknowledged to Veidas.

She notices that even Finnish and Latvian seniors are generally more active and social than their Lithuanian peers. “Elder Finns and Latvians like to hang out for a bit in church premises when masses are over, exchanging witty remarks or even having snacks. To me they seem to be less isolated than the Lithuanian retirees, who often get too suspicious about new initiatives, fearing some do-gooder intends only to hustle their money,” the International Job Contact Network director noted.
She relates that recently, while carrying out a voluntary project for elderly Lithuanians in apprenticing them for temporary work at a Caritas canteen in Italy, six volunteers turned up. However, with the departure date nearing, all of them changed their minds, excusing themselves, saying they were afraid of leaving their home for an entire three weeks.
“Sadly, most of our retirees are crippled by fears of trying out new things, juggling a bit their everyday activities and, ultimately, enjoying their life,” Ziuramskaite says.

“Give the Lithuanian pensioners the pensions the Swiss or Italians have and they will joyfully enroll in cheese or wine tasting classes. When you are a pensioner in Lithuania, you are worried whether the poor pension will be enough to buy bread, the most necessary medicine and settle the heating bill, which takes three-fourths of the pension in winter,” Ruzgus rebuts.
He also disagrees that all Lithuanian pensioners are whimperers, voluntarily incarcerating themselves in their apartments or houses. “The line that separates our seniors from the rest of the civilized world is the bulge of the purse. In our organization Bociai, uniting 54 communities of elderly, we have many very active and youthful people. You have to come to the Vilnius Congress Palace on October 1, where our pensioners will not only address their problems, but also dance and sing,” the Bociai chairman said.

He said that the Congress is going to not only urge the government to reinstate the pre-crisis pensions that have been slashed as a part of the Kubilius-led government austerity measures, but also to return the pensions that had not been paid out for the employed pensioners during 1995-2002.
“The government has to find 600 million litas for that. I am sure it will, as pensioners are a powerful force when an election comes,” the chairman said.

Some pensioners, despite the financial constraints, are indeed very active; however, they are an exception to the rule. 63-year-old Onute Kasetiene, a life-loving and vital resident of Varena, a small town with a population of 12,000 people, has recently reached retirement age. However, she says she cannot imagine a life her other peers lead - being at home and occasionally going to mass at the local Catholic Church, or for a stroll in a near-by forest.
She says she is determined to continue working as an ER chief nurse at a local hospital as long as her health allows.
But not only her health. “If only the government allows me keep my job,” she stresses.

In vain attempts to tackle the 13 percent unemployment and soaring emigration, Lithuanian authorities, led by Kubilius, who does not refrain from publicly encouraging seniors to an active life, in fact try to push them from the labor market, pointing out on numerous occasions that elderly workers, especially teachers and senior managers at state institutions, have to give up their positions, allowing the youth to take the jobs.

According to Sodra, the Lithuanian social security service, currently there are 103,600 employed pensioners, which makes up 8.9 percent of the employed. In truth, the Sodra statistics reveal the number of employed pensioners is constantly declining, from 131,900 in 2000 to 103,600 working pensioners in 2011. The significant decrease has been caused by the incumbent government’s decision to heavily slash employed pensioner salaries in 2009.

Albinas Bagdonas, professor and head of the Special Psychology Laboratory at Vilnius University, notices that the Lithuanian elderly have quite a different mentality than their peers in Western Europe. “The vast majority of our seniors are preoccupied with medicine and coming death. Departure from the world is unavoidable; however, no one should get too obsessive about it. As long as you live, you have to engage in an activity,” the scholar says.
How many Lithuanian pensioners listen to him? Kasetiene nods approvingly: “It is an art to live long and stay healthy and cheerful till the same end.” Her 87-year-old frisky and spry mother isn’t eager to slow down on chanting funeral prayers for the departed. “Sometimes I attend several funerals per weekend. It feels so good to meet people and wish a farewell for the gone there,” she says.

At 63, Kasetiene has recently taken computer classes and, having learned the nitty-gritty of the Web, has bought a laptop. “I have already learnt how to send and check out my e-mails and browse the Web. However, my biggest discovery is Skype. It has been ages since I saw my sister, who lives in Chicago now. With Skype available, we chat now almost every day. Besides, I use it to chat with my daughter, who studies medicine in Germany,” she says.

What does the Lithuanian government promise to the army of retirees ahead of the Year 2012 of Active Aging and Generation Solidarity? Lina Businskaite, head of the Department of Communications at the Ministry of Social Security and Labor, says that the Ministry, following the obligations by the government, is to reinstate the pre-crisis pensions for retirees from Jan. 1, 2012.

“Also, the pensioners, who were working throughout 1997-2002 and who have not received their pensions and disability allowances due to the then-economic hardships, are to be paid the arrears in June next year,” Businskaite informed The Baltic Times.

She says the Ministry, preparing for 2012, is “discussing” with various organizations and institutions what would suit most for the year of Active Aging and Generation Solidarity. “When all the entities introduce their proposals, the Ministry is going to produce the 2012 Year Activity Plan, which will address the needs of the elderly,” the communication head said.
In a country where less than 10 percent of its population trusts its government, the assurances may do very little for those who are the most vulnerable today – the pensioners, who, in fact, are even unaware of 2012 being theirs.