“Good evening, you are speaking with Geert Jan van Dijk from #notalone, what can I do for you?” “I am very alone”, I hear on the other end of the line. Before I know it, an elderly woman takes me into her life full of sickness, sadness, frustration and loneliness. Home care support no longer enters her appartment, luckily her help wants to do the shopping once a week, which she then leaves at the door. I ask who am I speaking to. “Oh sorry”, she says, mentioning her name, “I haven’t even introduced myself”. I realize she wants to tell her story. We get into a conversation, make small talk and she slowly calms down. At the end she says that she considers herself privileged to live in the Netherlands, reading so many stories about refugees in Greece. It moves me that there is room for others when someone feels heard.
Tonight it’s my first shift volunteering for the initiative #notalone. It is a nationwide campaign during the coronavirus crisis when people can call a phone number if they need help. The campaign was launched by churches and Christian organisations. A large network of coordinators per town and churches are ready to provide help for those in need. Tonight it’s my turn to connect the requests for help with the churches and local organisations. At least that’s what I think. The reality is that I am mainly called by elderly people who feel lonely and live in fear of contracting the virus. I realise they just need someone who takes a moment to listen to them.
After four hours of listening, I am reminded by three things. Firstly, one of our Christian political parties launches a campaign last year about aging with dignity instead of euthanasia when you feel your life has been enough. More than half of the elderly I speak to refer to death. “As far as I’m concerned I’m done with life”, is what they tell me. And when I listen to the stories, I understand that thought very well. But I also strongly feel things could be different if there could be more time and space to take care of each other.
Secondly, an 86-year-old mum of one of my colleagues was hospitalised recently with serious health complaints. Coronavirus was the immediate concern which meant she was cared for in a special ward. My colleague was only allowed to visit her in an almost unrecognisable hospital protective suit. After testing it turned out not to be coronavirus, but dying of old age. Fortunately, a space became available in a small and very peaceful hospice. The contrast couldn’t be greater. Surrounded by her loved ones, his mother was able to let go of life in peace and love. What a blessing are all those volunteers who give their time to people in the last days of their lives.
Finally, I recently spoke to someone who works as a copywriter. I asked how he was doing with his work, but he said that he had taken a new direction. He loved to sing and play guitar. And he felt a tremendous appreciation when performing in senior citizens homes. Now he had decided that he wanted to do that in the future.
This is a time when churches consider their added value in society. Churches realise they have a lot to offer. But many churches also now recognise that they have not built good relationships in the neigbourhood so that people do not find the church easily. What I learned again last week was that nothing is easier for the church than the step into the nearest senior citizen home. Maybe not physically yet, but there are many people out there who are longing just for a chat.
By Geert Jan van Dijk, Vice Chair of the Dutch Relief Alliance & Chair of Cinnamon Network Netherlands Advisory Council
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