Autumn is approaching, the autumn of life...

Andrzej Tarwid

All demographers agree that the number of old people in Poland is increasing because Poles live longer. For the last fifteen years the average lifespan has stretched out by four years. The problem of aging population is one of the most important problems we must unavoidably face. In several years every fifth Pole will be over 60 years old. The number of the elderly, after 80, will also increase to a considerable extent. In the next years these trends will be more evident. What does that mean for the entire society? Towards the end of summer holiday the weather was not good for sightseeing but the Castle of the Teutonic Knights in Malbork was packed with various tourists’ groups. ‘Annually we have over 400,000 visitors. Parents come with their children. Young people come in organised groups, students come individually. We also see many old people but the majority of them are foreigners’, says Genowefa Sztajnbor, who sells tickets to the castle. She adds, ‘The number of Polish pensioners is considerably smaller. They might not have had money for such trips.’
Researches confirm this speculation. ‘Polish senior citizens choose organised tours incomparably more rarely than Western European senior citizens, especially from Germany or the Benelux countries. Our pensioners go with their grandchildren if they go anywhere at all. But such trips are very often sponsored by their working children’, says Dr Tadeusz Buczynski from the Krakow Institute of Tourism.

One hundred doctors for millions of patients

The old people in Poland have not got any means for trips to Polish or foreign resorts during their summer holiday. All kinds of trips are luxurious for them and they must save money for a long time to afford them. Therefore, ‘town’ people spend their holiday in their own garden plots and every few years they go to sanatoriums. People living in villages do not think of leaving somewhere on holiday, they stay in their places. This is mainly a question of being used to such forms of resting and also the question of low pensions, for example Zygmunt O., 74-year old former farmer living near Sandomierz, receives about 600 zloty a month. He has had two strokes and two heart attacks. He spends one third of his pension on drugs. Cutting down unnecessary costs, which are undoubtedly trips, is a must in the pensioners’ budgets. The Central Service for Statistics shows that almost 10% of senior citizens and every forth pensioner live on the poverty line. Only families with many children have worse material situations. Sociologists notice that many pensioners who can live on their own sell their apartments in towns and move to the country. The main reasons are: smaller costs of living and fresh air. This is a kind of return to the roots since for the last forty years nine million people have moved to cities. Our pensioners cannot count on help of social workers as their peers in the West can. We have got proportionally three times fewer social workers than for example in Germany. There is a lack of places in health care centres. When we were preparing this article we contacted several old people’s homes in Poland. There was only one place available in one health care geriatric house. One had to pay 1,400 zloty for a place in a room with several beds. But that price did not include medicines and pampers. ‘In 2004 the services in old people’s houses were commercialised. These houses demand market prices, i.e. between 2,000 and 2,500 zloty. And the average available sum is less than 800 zloty. ‘That shows the difficult situation of old people and their families,’ says Prof. Jozefina Hrynkiewicz, sociologist at the University of Warsaw. The national gerontology, knowledge dealing with the process of aging, treatment of old people’s diseases, and the social side of ageing, is still at a nascent stage. The number of specialists dealing with diseases in old age and their prevention is also small, as many as 100 specialists in the whole country. And the number of potential patients amounts to several millions, and it will systematically grow.

Replaceability of generations

All demographers agree that the number of old people in Poland is increasing because Poles live longer. For the last fifteen years the average lifespan has stretched out by four years and currently, women live 79 years on average and men ca. 71. This means that mot of us will reach the old age. Demographers predict that in 2020 every fifth Pole will be over 60. A decade later 26% of our countrymen will be elderly. At that time, in such countries as Austria, Belgium, Norway or Sweden every third citizen will be over 60. In Italy there will be almost 40% of old people. In Western countries the increase of lifespan began much earlier than in Poland and these countries are better prepared to face this process. They have more social services and their style of life is different as well: they promote activities in old age, and pensioners themselves are wealthy people. From the economic point of view we would say that they are good customers who visit the world and Poland in their retirement, which could be seen in Malbork. The Western countries have begun preparing for a steady increase of old people. For example, Germany introduced obligatory old age insurance 11 years ago in order to have appropriate social services. There are similar plans in our country. It is most likely that from 2009 we will pay obligatory care fee to finance the system of old people’s health care. The Ministry of Health has already worker out a project. Why is such a form of insurance needed? What makes demographers anxious is the so-called lack of replaceability of generations, i.e. the fact that the generation of children is smaller than the generation of parents. This dangerous tendency is in our country, too. This phenomenon has been strengthened since 1989. In 2005, replaceability of generations was lower than the necessary 40%. And that was the worst result in the European Union.


The increase in old people requires changes on the labour market. New work places for young people should be created but that must not be done at the cost of old people as it has been so far. It has been the unemployed, over 50 years old, that have had slight chances to find new employment, and outside of big cities that has been even impossible. ‘In Poland old people have not been considered on the labour market. Employers value progress more than the experience of employees,’ says Prof. Lucyna Frackiewicz from the Academy of Economics in Katowice. In the West the problem of old people on the labour market was solved by creating life long learning and furthermore, more flexible forms of employment were introduced, for example part time jobs or self-employment. The former was accepted in the so-called collective agreement signed by the organisations of employers and trade unions in Spain. It means that an experienced employee works fewer and fewer hours. At the same time the employee instructs a newly employed person to take over his/her duties. This formula would not have been beneficial for Spanish employers if some part of the pension contribution had not been paid by the state. Other challenges that our country face in the context of aging population are: building social facilities for the elderly and lonely and bigger means for health care for these groups. This also means preparing migration policy since we have only delivered cheap labour force so far. And little is said about the conditions of foreigners’ employment in our country and which nationalities should be allowed to work here although some decisions have been taken. In the last decade of July our labour market was opened for Ukrainians and Bylorusians. The challenges resulting from aging population require a wide debate, especially for social partners, i.e. workers’ unions, organisations of employers and the government that meet in the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs in Poland. In Prof. Hrynkiewicz’s opinion a way to solve the present, and most of all the future problems concerning aging society, should be based on the principle of solidarity.
‘It means that the whole society is obliged to help old people. Unfortunately, in the years 1997-98 the government chose the system (open pension funds), which was purely individualistic, in which every person collects money for his/her pension. Thus the unemployed or those who choose the black market employment do not receive any benefits. Those who earn only ca. 900 zloty will be in very difficult situations’, Prof. Hrynkiewicz predicts. Solutions should be found now since in several years’ time it will be to late. Similarly, it was too late to take decisions to encourage young people to have more children. If that had been done in the right time the problem of aging society would not have been our biggest challenge in the first half of the 21st century.
Under the auspices of Caritas there are about 200 health care centres for old people. These are mainly teams of district nurses and medical practitioners who regularly visit chronically ill people. The teams offer professional medical health and care. They treat patients, measure their blood pressure and wash them or do rehabilitation exercises with them. The last task has been fulfilled by 70 rehabilitation centres run by Caritas. The specialists help senior citizens recover physical fitness after injuries: broken, twisted or crushed limbs. Caritas also runs hospices for terminally ill people and 29 palliative-hospice care centres. ‘These are groups that care for old families and the sick in their homes’ Fr Sobolewski explains.
The old and the lonely can also find help in 100 canteens and hostels in parishes and 60 centres that were founded on the diocesan level. Another help is occasional parcels with food and extra payment for the rent or money for coal in winter.

"Niedziela" 40/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: