A PresenTense Fellow Looks to Upend Retirement Living in Russia

Our grandmothers and grandfathers, no matter how old they are, and despite any health problems they might have, are still young in their souls and the last thing they want is to feel old and helpless.

by Maryna Gaidak

Almost two years ago, the KAET Fellowship was launched in Moscow by PresenTense in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Unlike many other Jewish initiatives this fellowship teaches something fundamentally new to the Russian community – independence. Social entrepreneurship is a relatively new concept for Russian society, however the program was greeted with great enthusiasm by the KAET fellows. [This year’s cohort who will present their projects on June 6th].

I was lucky to recently meet Lyudmila Zaharova, a KAET fellow and the long time director of Hesed in Ryazan. Lyudmila and her project stand out for a number of reasons: not only older than most PresenTense Fellows, Lyudmila is almost the age of her target audience! She believes in what she is doing more than in anything else, is open to new opportunities and is willing to learn and keep up with all technological advances – which she finds a challenge.

Lyudmila’s project is to create a residential center for elderly. Her idea is to make a “U-turn” in the concept of a Russian nursing house. The main problem that Lyudmila sees in nursing houses nowadays is that people who live there are viewed as helpless, dependent and old. In her opinion such an approach is hurting the elderly; they feel like they are becoming a burden to their children; and a nursing house is not a place for them to ‘live’, but a place, which will make the lives of their children better.

Lyudmila’s enthusiasm and energy are exceptional: “When I think about this house I see it in every little detail, with gardens, benches, lakes and the main image standing in my eyes is a smiling old woman, who is sitting on the bench in the yard playing with her little dog. I truly believe that more than just being taken care of, the elderly need to be heard and respected. There are a lot of sick people who may not be as active anymore, but they are still individuals with their own opinions, talents and thoughts”.

Lyudmila has found a plot of land in Solotcha, a town just outside of Ryazan. It is well-known by locals as a resort with enough space to build such a center. “I am learning every day. Social entrepreneurship is something very different from everything I have been doing because you don’t only try to solve some problem in your society or meet its needs, you also have to realize all the risks you are taking. My dream is to build as many such houses as possible around the country, however, I realize that right now it is impossible and I plan to start with one house for 100 people and according to my calculations it should be finished and fully functioning in three years”.

Lyudmila brought up in my mind something we often forget: that our grandmothers and grandfathers, no matter how old they are – and despite any health problems they might have – are still young in their souls and the last thing they want is to feel old and helpless. Modern society puts the elderly in some kind of social deadlock and Lyudmila insists on creating a place with descent living conditions and what is more important, an opportunity to communicate and continue to express themselves and enjoy life.

“Within the framework of this project we will give our residents an opportunity to work. As examples, anyone who used to be a tour guide or a historian will have a chance to guide schoolchildren around local museums; anyone who liked to sing or dance will run singing or dancing classes. I would like to mention that this center I am building will be completely open. We will break a stereotype of some kind of a closed area full of old people. Residents will be able to leave and go anywhere they want: to the stores, theatres and come back in the evening.

It is more than just food and medical care because these people need more. The atmosphere of comfort will be complemented with various Jewish activities. Shabbat and celebrating different Jewish holidays will be part of the normal routine. Hebrew classes and Torah through theatre will be available to everyone. We will keep them busy and make them feel needed because they are”.

The concept of volunteerism is new in Russia and is just now settling into people’s minds; social entrepreneurship is also making its way through and has successfully reached the Russian Jewish community. Right now Lyudmila is spending all of her free time gaining the necessary knowledge and tools to turn her vision into a sustainable venture. She has the most important – passion to change the world by starting with her own community and during the past five months KAET provided her with all the necessary tools to make it happen.

[Lyudmila is one of 9 participants in this year’s KAET Moscow Fellowship program. Others, working on a variety of initiatives, include professionals such as Elena Galanin, who is developing Jewish family clubs in residential areas (catering to those families who find it difficult to travel to the main Jewish centers) and Yulia Burdo, a JDC professional by day, who is working on providing event services around the principle of Zero Waste.]