Prisoners of the Fourth Floor

It’s been years since they left their homes.

Most of the mugs in her kitchen no longer have handles. She often forgets that she’s got something in her hand and then the mugs fall and break. When she wants to drink some tea, she takes an empty cup and sets it on the coffee table. Then she goes back into the kitchen, pours hot water into a thermos, hangs the thermos over the handle of her walker, and goes back into the living room. After all that, she barely has energy left to sit down and turn on For Better and For Worse.

“I see what’s going on. Last time, I dropped the kettle. The water was already cold, but if it had been boiling, I would have burned myself. So now I don’t have a kettle anymore. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by everything that when I sit down with a book, I can read about three lines before my eyes start closing.” Next to her lay The Confessions of St. Augustine and Niedziela (Sunday) magazine. 

Danuta is seventy-five. She has slim hands with translucent nails and white hair pulled up into a ballerina bun. She’s so small that when she sits at the table, it suddenly seems fit for a giant. Everything around her is huge in comparison, save for a picture of the last supper so microscopic that it’s hard to spot Jesus between the apostles. Against the white walls, every drop of color in the apartment pops. Danuta’s lilac sweater is suddenly blinding. The paint chipping off her balcony is an intense shade of blue. The red and green robes of a little figurine, an angel, demand attention. The figurine is from her neighbor, who got it from an aunt in America, and passed it on to Danuta. She accepted the secondhand gift in the same spirit in that she accepts old age.

“You can’t turn yourself into a victim. Demanding things from the world is useless,” she says. When was the last time she left the house on her own? Five years ago? Even then, she wasn’t sure which was louder, the creak of the stairs, or that of her bones as she shuffled down them. They are about the same age, after all. 

The caretaker on the ground floor used to store Danuta’s walker for her. It had a seat. It weighed thirty-seven kilos. She would hold on with both hands and push it to the nearest store. Sometimes someone would ask if they could help her. But how could she accept, when they were already speeding away? From her perspective, behind the walker, they were all like that. She would do her shopping and then walk home. Climbing back up with her milk and groceries was a task equal to that of a healthy person summiting Kasprowy Wierch. On Danuta’s wall hangs a faded poster of snowy mountaintops and Scandinavian fjords. Next to it, a photo of her grandmother in Hutsul folk dress, from a vacation in the Carpathians. She liked the mountains. Danuta doesn’t go out any longer. Those like her are known as prisoners of the fourth floor. They are stranded in apartments and houses without elevators. They don’t remind anyone of their rights because they don’t believe that they have any. They are best known by state social workers, who get calls from them that say: 

“I can’t go out to the store anymore. I’m too high up, and it’s too far down.”

Danuta asked for help as well. She told them that she had uterine cancer, has osteoporosis, and was recently diagnosed with muscle atrophy, which she knew would only get worse. After her phone call, a social worker came to see her. The purpose of the visit was clear: come up with a care plan so that she could live on her own for as long as possible. It was decided that a caretaker would come visit Danuta three times a week, to pick up mail, do the shopping, dust, do laundry, and when it became necessary, wash her hair, feed her, and change her. One of Danuta’s caretaker’s first tasks was to visit the clinic and deliver documents attesting to her condition.

Clinic Receptionist: She has to come herself. 

Caretaker: She doesn’t leave the house. 

Clinic Receptionist: Then someone from her family.

Caretaker: She doesn’t have any family. 

Clinic Receptionist (shocked): What do you mean she doesn’t have a family?!

“Is that really so strange?” Danuta says, at once defending her right to solitude and rationalizing her situation. “I didn’t get married. I don’t have kids. My distant family is spread around Poland. I’m not the only one like that in the world.” 

She was born two years before the Warsaw Uprising in ‘44. Her family home didn’t survive. Until the 1970s she lived with her parents and grandmother on the outskirts of Warsaw. Their home didn’t have gas or even a bathroom. Their one luxury was cold water. Her father died, and then her grandmother needed more care, so she and her mother moved with grandma to the apartment Danuta lives in to this day.  

She worked at a factory that manufactured communications equipment, and then at the Wamel Electrical Appliance Factory, and later at the government tax office and at PKO Bank. She has experienced loss: first her mother and grandmother, then her job. Later, she started to lose the feeling in her legs. The trouble walking began around 2000. Things got worse from then on. She was waiting for hip surgery, but ultimately the orthopedist decided it wasn’t necessary. Now there’s little more to do than numb the pain.

She’s sick and alone. She can get some fresh air on the balcony, but there’s no one she can depend on to carry her down from the fourth floor and take her to the park. She waited for a place at the sanitorium for two years, but when she got it she wasn’t healthy enough to get there, so she gave up her spot. Not too long ago her walker got jammed in the kitchen. She pushed it once, twice, the wheel spun free, the walker rolled forward and she fell on the floor. She crawled to the living room, made it to the phone, but didn’t have anyone to call, so she spent two hours trying to get herself up on the couch. 

A month ago she decided to move out of her prison. She’s trying to get used to the idea. She’s thinking of it as a vacation. When you go somewhere for a month or two you pack some things, but leave the rest behind. This trip is different. She will be able to take her chest of drawers with its dark wood finish, and her old chair. The chandelier she’ll give away. She won’t be coming back. She has applied for a place in an assisted living residence. 

“Everybody gets older. There’s no way around it, so you have to get used to the idea. I’m a believer and I know that there’s more to life than being happy. All these other things are part of being human too,” she says.  

Wooden stairs and pale green railings. On the third floor hang paintings of cats and crocuses. On the second, a sticker reads, “We’re waiting for freedom.” Perhaps Danuta will notice it, as she’s leaving her home for the last time.

Warsaw is growing older: every tenth resident is above seventy. There are eighteen Social Welfare Centers designed to help. When someone is no longer capable of living on their own,  they can apply for a spot at one of fourteen assisted living residences (seven are for those with chronic illness). 

At end of last August, the Warsaw Office of Assistance and Social Projects finished recruiting seniors for their two-year project “Z@opiekowani” (“Cared for”), benefiting those who had never before received caretaking services. They have also been covered by tele-care. Each of them received a device that can check their temperature, heart rate, and even send out an alarm in case of emergency. They can simply press a button and help will be on the way. The project will cost 977,000 złoty.

In Poznan, over 250 seniors already benefit from tele-care, with the goal of covering 550 isolated, illness-stricken individuals. The “Z@opiekowani” project will cover just forty seniors. There are over 230,000 people over seventy in Warsaw. 

Irena has been working in social services for twenty-one years (she asked for anonymity). She introduces me to Alicia, a senior who lived on the second floor of an apartment block for fifty-nine years. This year Alicia will celebrate her hundredth birthday alongside Poland, which won back its independence in 1918. 

Alicia has silver earrings and a gemstone ring. A silk scarf the color of a summer meadow is wrapped around her neck. She sits at the table with the dignity of an Empress.

“So what if I don’t go out? Thousands of people don’t go out. My neighbors have passed, but they didn’t go out either, even though they were younger than me. Since when? I don’t remember. Six years ago my caretaker tried to take me downstairs, but she couldn’t make it and dragged me back up. And here I stayed. In the meantime, I’ve had two strokes: a tiny one and a big one. The paramedics took me to the hospital. I could have stayed longer, but honestly I wanted to go home as soon as possible. What do I do all day? I get up at four-thirty. I wash up, make the bed, pray, do a crossword, read Przegląd (The Review), Angora, and Newsweek. My caretaker Ms. Basia comes. Besides that, I look out the window. There’s a tennis court and a park. When the linden trees and jasmine bloom, I can smell them from here. There used to be hares and black grouse in the trees, but there aren’t anymore. Sometimes I get up and walk out to the stairwell to look out a different window. Birds fly over to me. A chickadee, or sometimes a woodpecker. I throw them sunflower seeds. My daughter-in-law comes over, or my son calls.”

“It’s a pretty good situation. She has family,” Irena whispers to me. 

On the dresser there are a few framed photos, some of her mother, some of her father in mustaches, her son, her daughter-in-law. In the center is the only color photo: her grandson’s wedding. 

 

“My grandson is already a grown man. I wasn’t at his wedding, but his daughter will be born any day now. He’s got a house outside Warsaw, so he doesn’t come into the city very often. Of course I’d love to see it. I’ve only seen pictures. I can’t ask them to come get me. Yes, they have a car, two in fact. The thought that I’d like to go out has never crossed their minds. Ms. Basia is always nagging me, ‘You should give orders and make demands. Your grandson is a big guy, he could carry you down in his arms.’ But how could I demand to be carried out?! How would it look, imposing myself on them!” Alicia reasons. 

“I spend holidays with my family of course. We celebrate Christmas Eve on the twenty-third and Easter the day before. What do you mean why? Because the next day they have plans of their own!” To this, Irena sighs. “I could live at my son’s house, but that would be embarrassing. A while ago, I had terrible diarrhea. I washed and cleaned up after myself. I would rather be here. I’d be a stranger in their house. If only I could die peacefully, without bothering anyone...It’s terrible, to be unwanted and yet still here. And aware of it. You never know when you lie down if you’re ever getting up again. That’s what I’m most afraid of. I have blood clots. At any moment I could, well…” 

We say goodbye. 

“See how she just accepts her fate?” Irena says to me in the stairwell. “That’s typical. Elderly people think that’s just the way things are. Anyways, who can she tell about her problems? What are they going to do? She’s leaving the apartment to her grandson. He should be looking after her, taking her out, or he should move her to the ground floor so she could go out. She thinks only of him, nothing of herself. Believe me, no one cares about the elderly.” 

We sit on a bench in the park, which smells of jasmine each June. Irena complains to me about the private companies that care for seniors on behalf of the social welfare office. There aren’t clearly defined qualifications for those providing care, other than a primary school education. When companies bid for contracts, the most important criterion is cost. Social welfare services will pay a company eighteen złoty per hour of caretaking. The company pockets two thirds of that. A year ago in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza, Tomasz Pactwa, the Director of the Office of Assistance and Social Projects, openly admitted that “caretaking services are the weakest point of the social welfare system.” In May 2017, the city government created the Social Services Center, “Społeczna Warszawa,” to develop uniform standards for senior care and oversee their implementation. They will be enforced as of February 2018. Starting then, each caretaker will have to have completed a specialized supplementary training course, organized by the Social Services Center, and follow a code of ethics, which calls for the caretaker to treat seniors with formality and respect. Only then will they get a work contract.

“We often have a hard time with caretakers,” Irena explains. “For example, I know that a caretaker should be at an elderly lady’s home from eight to ten. I come at nine but the caretaker is not there. The elderly lady says, ‘She was here. Everything’s fine.’ I go to the next home and it’s the same thing, ‘She was here. She brought groceries, that’s enough.’ The next home, ‘She already left.’ Seniors are covering for these caretakers because they’re scared. After all she’s often the only person who visits them. Of course, there are devoted and reliable caretakers, but that’s the exception to the rule. The people who do this work fall into it by accident. They have their own troubles in life. Sometimes I ask caretakers, ‘Have you had any training?’ The answer is always the same, ‘No, none.’ The Ministry [of Family, Labor, and Social Policy] needs to understand that caretakers are the most important part of senior care. These have to be qualified and well-paid people. Our Social Welfare Center has been around for twenty-seven years, and in all that time no one has taken an interest in what these services really look like. Is telecare the answer? No emergency button is going to replace a qualified, responsive caretaker and effective healthcare. We really can’t afford to care for our oldest residents? They’re dying between their four walls.”

At the Office of Assistance and Social Projects, I look through a few issues of Seniors’ Voice. It’s funded by the Government Program for the Social Participation of Seniors for 2014-2020, which is supposed to improve seniors’ quality of life through promoting social engagement and physical activity. Seniors’ Voice does just that: it encourages them to live life to the fullest. Some regular columns include “The Stylish Senior” and “The Senior Gardener.” There’s also information on how to stay healthy so that your grandchildren can one day say, “My grandparents lived long, active lives.” I read an interview with DJ Wika—born in 1938 as Wirginia Szmyt, Poland’s oldest DJ and a model for active senior living. When asked how not to succumb to depression, she says staying active is the most important thing, “There are times when I don’t want to do anything, when I would gladly stay home, but I also know that if I stayed home for two or three days, I’d stay forever. I deal with it by forcing myself to stay active and leave the house—I go into town, to the movies, to the senior club.”

A 2012 report on Polish seniors by the Institute of Labor and Social Studies (a ministry-run research facility) notes that linking a positive attitude towards aging with physical fitness might exclude those who are not healthy and independent: “Focusing on staying active while aging [...] can create a false or overly optimistic model for aging, devoid of illness and ultimately no different from staying active in middle age, which for many seniors is not achievable.” Seniors’ Voice doesn’t reach those imprisoned on the fourth floor.  

Joanna Mielczarek has been observing aging for the last thirteen years. Each Friday, she volunteers to visit ninety year-old Marie and keep her company. She also runs the organization Little Brothers of Those in Need (active in Warsaw, Lublin, and Poznan). In 2013 they established a telephone helpline for seniors, operating twelve hours a week. The phone rings throughout the day, but also at night, when there is no one at the office. Seniors record messages that are played back in the morning. They are lonely. They want a friend. They want someone to go for a walk with. The organization sends out a volunteer coordinator to ask these seniors questions. They ask them how they view the volunteers. But they also ask volunteers (there are about twenty working each week), how they view the seniors. 

“Many respond with the popular Polish stereotype: a warm elderly lady sitting in an armchair in her slippers, nuzzling the cat. But that’s a real person you’re looking at, blood and bones, who has better and worse days,” Joanna says. The organization wants to spark a real connection between seniors and volunteers, relationships that could last years. 

Like the one she has with Maria, who lives on the sixth floor. There’s an elevator in her building, but it stops on an elevated platform on the ground floor. With Joanna’s help she can get around, but her vision is still a problem. She was losing her eyesight little by little, but now she is completely blind. Joanna taught her which button to press in the elevator, where to find the railing, where the steps start and stop and how to walk to the store, but Maria can’t seem to overcome the obstacle of the stairs. They plague her. She’s afraid that someone is walking behind her and that she’s slowing them down, even though at the same time, she’s not sure if there’s really anybody there. She rather not go out at all then become a nuisance to her neighbors. She waits for Friday, and for Joanna. 

Is she exaggerating her misgivings about her neighbors? Some seniors looked after by Little Brothers live in in the suburbs of Warsaw, in five-story apartment buildings without elevators. The stairs there are worn to the point of becoming slippery and dangerous, but some manage to go downstairs – with difficulty.

A few years ago, Little Brothers of Those in Need started asking neighbors if they would agree to put chairs out on the landings between floors so that seniors could sit, catch their breath, and then continue on. They managed to get half of the buildings to agree. 

The neighbors would say: “We don’t need chairs.”

The volunteers would respond: “Ms. Beata has been living here for sixty years.”

Neighbors: “So? Her caretaker does the shopping. She doesn’t have to go out.”

Volunteers: “What could it hurt?”

Neighbors: “It’s unsightly.”

Or: “People will know there are sick people living here.”

Or sometimes: “Someone will come and steal them.”

And so Maria waits for Joanna.

“It’s not just about buying potatoes,” Joanna explains. “The caretaker could just as easily do that herself. Buying potatoes is about dignity. I make time to go to the store with Maria and we look at all the products. She weighs a tomato in her hands, touches all the apples and decides what to buy for herself.”

Then they drink tea, read her mail, and make plans for the following week. Joanna always returns to the same question: after reading Maria the caretaker’s duties, she asks if everything got done this week. Maria is always surprised by how much hasn’t been done.

“Maria’s caretaker doesn’t iron because she doesn’t like to. She doesn’t peel vegetables because she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t cook because she doesn’t know how. She makes an appointment for the doctor and vacuums if she knows I’m coming,” Joanna says. “We’ve noticed that caretakers do a better job fulfilling their duties if they know that a volunteer visits with the senior, someone who cares about the person and can remind them of their rights. I keep telling Maria to ask her caretaker when she’s going to start doing her duties. But she’s afraid that upsetting her will just make things worse. The caretaker already told Maria that she stopped coming at all when one senior tried to complain about her.”

Fourth floor syndrome doesn’t just affect those in Warsaw. Social workers say that it’s like this in smaller cities too, especially those industrialized during the communist era, when the rural population moved into urban centers. They settled in compact one or two room apartments in rapidly constructed blocks. Now, these people are over seventy. Their children moved out and they were left alone. A 2012 report by the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw indicates that one in three seniors complain about the architectural barriers that complicate leaving home. The most common barrier is the lack of an elevator. But despite this, they don’t want to move. The experts conclude, “The attitude of Polish seniors remains strongly influenced by the old saying, ‘You don’t transplant old trees.’”

In Warsaw’s Praga district, there’s a place known as the “Homeless Lovers” housing development. In 1956, workers from fourteen of the capital’s factories (the Warsaw Motorcycle Factory, the Warsaw Auto Factory, and the Rosa Luxembourg Electric Lamp Manufacturing Plant among others) put together the largest housing cooperative in Poland, with the goal of building a development. Sztandar Młodych (Banner for the Young) wrote, at the time, “Every honest, empathetic person warms at the thought of sheltering loved ones in need of a home, of a corner for the kids, of a proper roof over the heads of our parents.” At the paper itself, one in four staff members didn’t have appropriate housing. The name “Homeless Lovers” was considered immodest and rejected in favor of The Young People’s Development. Twenty-eight buildings (nine have five floors, the others—three) housed the young people, most without kids as of yet, or with children as little as the saplings planted in the yard.

The trees grew higher, the lovers grew old and stooped. One in five residents is over eighty, including Stefan Ciechanowicz, one of the architects of the housing development, who still lives there. 

“We started with the idea that we were designing not just apartments, but a way of life. You’d move here and then live here until you died,” he explains. 

He says that in the original plans the development had a medical clinic, with senior-friendly housing nearby.

“The idea was simple: specially-equipped rooms that seniors could move into after moving out of their apartments. They could stay in a place they knew and be under the care of a nurse and doctor. Could you ask for anything better?” Stefan asks. The plans never came to fruition. The management of the cooperative changed hands and the young people weren’t interested. They didn’t think they’d ever get old. 

The question of elevators, or rather the lack of them, has been the source of an ongoing “lover’s quarrel.” The three-story buildings wouldn’t be able to support them, but the five-story buildings could. The administration investigated the matter: an elevator costs 300,000 zloty. Each resident would have to contribute fifteen extra złoty per month to install them. But those in the three-story buildings raised a racket about having to pay for the luxuries of those who live in the higher blocks. Sixty-four residents submitted a statement to the administration of the development stating, “I do not agree to using the renovation funds, i.e. the fund of all members, for the installation of elevators in certain tower blocks…” and so the idea has been tabled for the time being. 

On the development, rumors about the elevator project are widespread. 

A woman in a white tunic, around fifty, from one of the three-story buildings: “Who told you such ugly rumors? You think I don’t want my neighbor on the fourth floor to have an elevator? Nonsense!” she says, outraged. “The administration promised these old-timers elevators to secure their votes at the general assembly elections. But it turns out that no one checked beforehand if it was even possible. They led them astray.” 

A woman with her rolling shopping cart, eighty-three years old: “I’ve lived here for fifty-seven years. Sensibly, I chose the ground floor when I was picking out my apartment. I was pregnant. I was having a child soon. If someone bought their apartment later, or inherited it from their grandmother, why should I have to pay for their elevator?”

A man over seventy, with his dachshund. He says it’s true that, when he shattered his leg, he limped up to the third floor for over a year, but still quips: “All things considered, I couldn’t care one way or another, I’ve become a cold bastard..”

A young couple getting out of their elegant BMW, on the bumper, a sticker with the anchor of the WWII Polish Underground that says “We Remember.” She says: “Yes, it’s true. Residents didn’t agree to the elevators at the general assembly, because it costs too much. How much? I don’t know.” 

“So what are seniors supposed to do if they can’t leave their apartments?” I ask.

“I haven’t heard of anyone in this development who doesn’t go out just because we don’t have elevators. I don’t think that there are people here who have that problem.

There are. 

One of the first to campaign for the elevators was Weronika, who owns a studio on the third floor. First, she asked her neighbors for certificates from their doctors, which she compiled and brought to the administration. It was a thick envelope. She keeps copies of the certificates. One reads: “Marianna, b. 1912: severe joint disease, preventing her from getting around independently.” Another: “Romuald, b. 1935: significant difficulty walking,...” Another: “Bozena, b. 1935: rheumatoid arthritis, difficulties with balance, vision, walking…” Added to each, a note: “Doesn’t go out.” And some others: “Needs an elevator.” 

Weronika’s apartment is full of potted plants, decorative plates, and figurines. Her renovated bathroom is pink and spotless. Not a speck of dust. A book on the table reads, Healthy Joints, For A Better Life

“I remember my first day in this apartment. We had a stool, a small, Czech-made TV, and a fold-out couch. My husband and I sat down on it and cried for half an hour, we were so happy. Did I think that I would one day be old and have trouble going out?” Weronika says, wiping her eyes. She recovers quickly, raising her chin and speaking determinedly, “I played volleyball, danced. All the boys chased me. I’m seventy-seven, in pretty good shape and still have a bit of energy. When Zosia from upstairs sees me, she starts hugging me and asking about the elevators. But there’s not much I can do.” She starts crying again, but only for a moment. “We’ll go up to Zosia’s,” she declares. “You’ll see how it is.”

The fourth floor. Two seniors, Zofia and Romuald. He hasn’t left the apartment in four years. “He falls over. He’s covered in bruises. He wants to go out so badly. I have a walker, but what good does that do? I can’t manage anymore,” Zofia says, her voice trembling. “We lived in a worker’s hotel, four of us in nine square meters. We’d have taken anything. But now…” She shows me photos of her daughters, hanging on the wall of a small side room. “These are my babies. Such sweet girls I had, always smiling. God took them, one after the other. And my husband is sick,” Zofia says, crying. 

 

Weronika is crying as well, and whispers to me: “See, she’s doing what she can with what strength she has left. The house is tidy! She had a uterine prolapse from lifting too much. They wanted to keep her in the hospital, but without her, [Romuald] wouldn’t make it.” 

“The doctor said it was too late to operate because I’m eighty-eight years old. I have to rest. When I go to the store, I tell my husband, ‘You’re not to get out of your chair. If you’re good, I’ll give you a treat, a coffee or a chocolate.’”

We go down a floor. The door opens to an eighty-two year old woman with tired eyes. “Show us your hands,” Weronika asks. The woman holds a potato in her hands, twisted and gnarled like the roots of an old tree. “I have rheumatoid arthritis and fractures in my spine,” she explains. 

Weronika keeps on. The second floor. 

“This is what it’s like to live in a building without an elevator,” she says. 

In a dark room three seniors sit in front of the TV. Sitting in an armchair is Maria (105 years old), and on the couch is her daughter Halina with husband Tadeusz (both over seventy). 

Tadeusz: “It’s a miserable life. This apartment has turned into an old folks’ home.” 

Halina: “Mom uses her walker to go to the bathroom and back and that’s it. Just five years ago she was was with us at our garden plot. But then she fell and had to have a hip operation. Since then she doesn’t go out. I can’t count how many times she’s said: ‘How I’d love to just go to the pharmacy with you…’” 

Tadeusz: “When we were young, we built the road you see outside the window. But now we’re ancient history.”

We go down another flight.  

“The woman in number seven won’t answer, she’s just had back surgery again,” Weronika says, ringing the apartment next door. For a long moment, no one answers. Finally an elderly woman comes to the door. She looks sheepish as she smooths her skirt and fixes her blouse. It’s difficult for her to stay upright. 

“It’s hard to get around,” she says apologetically.

Weronika says it’s time to go: 

“It makes you want to cry, looking at us, huh? Me, I have sciatica and a herniated disc in my spine. The doctor says I can’t carry more than two kilos. I take my rolling cart shopping, and then pull it up behind me, step by step. By the time I get to my door I’m covered in sweat. That’s our lot in life. Tragic.” 

It doesn’t have to be like this. Here’s an example of a Warsaw apartment where elderly people could live well. It’s on the fifth floor of a building with an elevator. It has a private, enclosed garden with close-trimmed grass and a few hydrangea bushes. A pair of architects, Jan and Agnieszka Cieśla, bought and renovated this place for their aging parents, who love the sea. The apartment is painted blue and white and the walls hung with photos from their seaside vacations. But for now their parents are doing well and aren’t thinking of moving. 

“We made a marketing mistake when we told them it was for their old age,” quips Jan Cieśla. So the apartment is standing empty for now. Still, you can make an appointment to come see it:

First, the armchair (the architects call it the World Command Center). Just push off with one foot and it starts up. Or press the button and it reclines like a beach chair in the sun. 

The couch. Young people sit down, the elderly sink. But this one won’t collapse underneath them so that they hit their head as they sit down. It’s easy to get up again. 

The bathroom. There’s no tub or step up to get in, just a chair built into the wall under a shower head. The shower curtain is weighed so it doesn’t stick to wet skin, and the bathroom has heated floors, fast drying to prevent slips and slides. And if a leg gives out, the curtain acts like the ABS system in a car, breaking a fall by giving way slowly, hook by hook. 

The toilet. As comfortable as the armchair, though it doesn’t recline. It has buttons on the armrests. First it flushes, then it starts up the warm water bidet, and finally it drys. It also absorbs odor. 

The kitchen. The counter can be lowered if needed. The cabinets open at the press of a button. 

The entrance hall. Big enough, that even in a wheelchair, there’s plenty room to greet guests. 

The front door. Instead of a peephole there’s a camera and video screen. 

The bedroom. There’s a mattress that adjusts according to body temperature. There’s a night table with room for a cell phone, which charges wirelessly. And there’s automatic blinds programmed to rise with the sun. The lighting changes depending on the time of day: warming as evening approaches and then dimming when it’s time for bed. 

Developers visit this apartment, as do retirees and social workers. They look, they touch, and they ask: “But how much does it cost?” The armchair, from which one could rule the world: 8,900 złoty. The bed and mattress: 7,600. The shower chair: 4,000.

“You don’t have to introduce all these improvements at once. But we wanted to show that healthiest way to age is to live independently for as long as possible,” explains Jan Cieśla. 

“In an apartment like this, it’s possible. It seems too expensive? A retirement home in Warsaw costs around 5,000 złoty a month.” 

He adds that after sixty-five, having to move can be a shock. That’s why the Model Senior Apartment, as he’s named it, is targeted to those who are still younger seniors or who know that old age is just around the bend.

“Apartments should be designed so that we can live independently for as long as possible. And so our dignity isn’t threatened. Things start to go downhill when we become dependent on others’ to care for us. Though of course we should help those, like the prisoners of the fourth floor, who’ve already fallen into that trap,” says Cieśla.  

Halina, eighty-six years old, has never heard of the Model Senior Apartment. For half her life she worked at the Warsaw University of Technology library, but after retirement she still saw her friends from the work regularly. But for the last two years, they haven’t been able to visit her because she lives too high up. On the fourth floor. So instead Halina argues with her husband, though he passed twenty-eight years ago. 

“When we got this apartment, I asked him, ‘Józek, what are we going to do when we get old?” And he said, ‘What are you worried about? When we’re close to retirement, we’ll move.’ But he died, so my suffering doesn’t concern him anymore. Sometimes I look at his photo and imagine I’m speaking to him: ‘So, you get to lie there all quiet, while I struggle to go out!’” She speaks quietly, but combatively. “After the Uprising, Warsaw was a mass grave, only a few walls left standing. You would go out onto the street and cry. People lived in basements. We had only water and a little light. And here, gas, central heating, bathrooms. It was unbelievable.” 

Her hands shake, it’s hard for her to get around, but she sets the table with red and white patterned napkins, adds plates, and adjusts the glasses. Very carefully, she arranges the cakes, and says,  “A little dessert fork, a tiny teaspoon.” Listening to her speak, all of a sudden I crave sweet, small words. I want to describe her white sweater with its little collar and tiny buttons. 

After her husband’s death, she decided to do prepare herself for old age, as the creators of the Model Senior Apartment suggest. She replaced the terracotta (for something easier to keep clean), the windows (she put in plastic ones, which are easier to open) and the bathtub (for a lower one).  

“I didn’t think that my back would hurt this badly…” she says, crying. Then she works up the courage to joke, “After the war I couldn’t bathe because I didn’t have a tub. Now I have a tub, but I can’t bathe because I can’t get into it.” She would gladly do a further renovation, but she’s have nowhere to go in the meantime.

“Why didn’t you look for an apartment on the ground floor?” I ask.

For a long moment, Halina doesn’t speak. 

“I didn’t think that I’d live for so long after my husband’s death. I was so heartbroken that I thought it would be better if I passed too. But I didn’t, and now it’s not so easy. Who would I ask? No one would rather live on the fourth floor,” she says.

She brings out the notebook where she keeps track of her medical appointments. Every month she has six or seven. She has them all written out, each month on a separate sheet. She has had operations on her hands as well as a mastectomy, and suffers from a bad back. For the last five years, she has been going to procedures to block her nerves, which alleviates the pain for a while.

When she starts talking about how she can’t use public transport, and what a huge expense taxis are for her, she starts crying. But she immediately apologizes.

“Even the worst illnesses are nothing compared to how it was during the war,” she says. She had eight brothers and three sisters. They aren’t living any longer. She was the youngest. “If everything was okay and you felt good, you’d want to live a thousand years. Almost everything has to go bad for a person to not want to live.”

The following are listings from Warsaw’s Senior Days, which took place in September of 2017 (they ran for ten days and featured 360 events at almost 150 locations in Warsaw). 

Japanese Calligraphy Workshops

Uncovering Smartphone Secrets – individualized technology classes.

An Evening of Dance for Seniors. Free entry!!!

M for Motivation – a workshop for reaching your goals. 

“Sometimes a volunteer will be older than the person they’re caring for,” says Joanna Mielczarek, from Little Brothers of Those in Need. “Energized, healthy seniors are looking after those in need because they know first hand how loneliness or a loss of purpose can affect an elderly person. Many elderly people are depressed, but would never go see a psychiatrist.”

According to Statistics Poland, 646 Poles age seventy and up took their own lives in 2016.

Translation: Monika Zaleska