A clubhouse where pensioners meet to exchange painting tips over coffee has grown into a vibrant cultural space.

Several women sit and paint in a small, sunny courtyard. Above them, hanging from wires stretched between the surrounding buildings, colorful umbrellas create shade. Protective masks on their faces, they peek at one another’s sketches, giving advice and sharing jokes.

The women are part of a course for senior citizens run by the association Nas Most (Our Bridge) in Zenica, a city of about 100,000 in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sabiha Bajramovic, 72, created her first painting in that very courtyard, in a course she took two years ago. Like most of the participants, she first picked up a brush in her later years.

Nas Most held a fundraising bazaar of art and craft works created by its members. Photo by Adjin Kamber.

“I regret not having started earlier, but it’s never too late,” she says. She passed on her enthusiasm for her new hobby to her grandchildren, who started painting with her. Her works now decorate the walls of her apartment and those of her friends, as well as the Nas Most art gallery. Bajramovic also began to socialize with the group and to participate in other association activities.

According to the 2013 census, about 14 percent of the population of Bosnia is over 65. The United Nations estimates that in 2060 people 65 and older will make up more than 30 percent of the population; and they are one of the most marginalized social groups in the country. Pensions, which average at just under 350 convertible marks ($200), amount to about 42 percent of the average salary. Many elderly people live on the edge of poverty.

Loneliness and social isolation are other major challenges. The government’s draft 2018-2027 strategy document “for improving the position of the elderly” in the Federation entity, one of the two semi-autonomous regions that make up Bosnia, cites the problem of the lack of initiatives offering seniors “life improvement” activities. 

“For this reason, various abilities and skills, and the knowledge of the elderly remain untapped, while due to exclusion, they become susceptible to mental illness (primarily depression), which has a significant negative impact on the quality of life of the elderly,” the document states. This was also the conclusion of 2010 research by the Caritas Bishops’ Conference in Bosnia entitled We Talked to the Poor. A sample of 1,200 beneficiaries of Caritas programs, of whom more than 47 percent identified as “elderly people in need,” cited impaired health, insufficient income, and loneliness as the seniors’ biggest problems. Centers for healthy aging, which offer socialization and social inclusion, exist only in a few major cities. Zenica, which according to the 2013 census has more than 13,000 inhabitants over the age of 65, is not one of them. Pensioners’ groups and women’s associations organize activities for the elderly, although these sometimes lack continuity because they depend on specific projects and donations.

“By connecting older people and keeping their brains active, their physical health will be better,” says psychologist and psychotherapist Nermina Vehabovic Rudez. “The brain can be regenerated and needs work so that the possibility of dementia, isolation, and mental disorders is reduced.”

That’s why starting seven years ago, Nas Most started bringing together seniors from Zenica and surrounding areas through artistic and cultural initiatives. Most association members hadn’t previously engaged in creative activities. They learn new skills, teach one another, and make new friends. A yearly membership fee of 25 convertible marks allows participation in all association activities, but non-members can attend Nas Most’s events as well.

Coping With “Old-People Troubles”

“Aging is more beautiful through creative work,” says 69-year-old Zdena Saric, Nas Most president. She started painting 10 years ago. In 2013, she and several friends began to transform an empty space into a center for creative workshops and an art gallery. A place where pensioners met weekly to exchange beginner painting tips over coffee has grown into one of the most important cultural spaces in Zenica. “We realized that creative work and socializing through painting is good for us and helps us cope with old-people troubles,” Saric says. “And we wanted to help others do the same to make them feel better.” In addition to painting and handicraft courses, the association organizes events such as exhibitions of members’ works, book promotions, and art colonies.

Under the slogan Waving for Culture, in 2019 Nas Most hosted a project under the auspices of Tandem for Culture, an international cultural cooperation program, designed to acquaint Zenica with the culture of the Sultanate of Oman. More than 100 Zenica seniors attended free workshops on painting and making decorative objects inspired by Omani culture. Podcasts called Moze Oman covered topics such as traditional music.

Socializing during a jewelry-making workshop. Photo by Adjin Kamber.

The woman behind the podcasts, artist and curator Tara Aldughaither, whose work is focused on the Arabian Peninsula, visited Nas Most in 2018 during a two-week stay in Bosnia. “The sense of community I saw is really special, particularly because the elderly who gather there share not only a common space, but also memories, friendships, and creative energy,” she recalls.

The collaboration with Tandem for Culture was the first international effort for Nas Most and sparked media interest. The association, which had about 30 active members seven years ago, has more than 100 today. The Moze Oman podcasts were broadcast on Radio Active, run by the youth association Nasa Djeca (Our Children).  After that initial collaboration they joined forces to design Art Kvart, a common cultural space in their adjoining locations. In Art Kvart, they organize concerts, exhibitions, performances, and debates.

Sabiha Bajramovic shows off work during a painting class for seniors. Photo by Nermin Kozlo.

“It’s a pleasure to work with people who want to see changes in their community and who look at our city from a slightly happier viewpoint than the majority of the population, even young people,” says Nasa Djeca director Ernad Bihorac. “Sometimes it seems to me that these seniors have more energy than most of the younger generations, and that’s fantastic.”

Connecting Across Borders

Nas Most also cooperates with cultural organizations from Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, and Serbia. In November 2019, association volunteer Meliha Bico Druzic, 65, traveled to the Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk to share the experiences of Nas Most in working with the elderly with Insha Osvita, a nonprofit educational and cultural organization.

“As we planned to start working with the elderly population, we started looking for an expert experienced in working with people over the age of 65. And we found Meliha, who herself is in that age group and an expert [in that field],” says Anna Potymkina, art curator and Insha Osvita project coordinator.

Potymkina says she admires Nas Most because “they don’t wait for society to take care of them but are initiators of activities intended for themselves.” The two groups currently are collaborating on Urban Herstories – Female Face of Zenica, documenting the social, political, and urban changes in the city since the 1960s. A group of seniors from Zenica were to make a Female Map of Zenica in March of this year, through group walks and discussions about their relationships to various locations in the city center. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced a revamp. Six women from Zenica, almost all pensioners, gave interviews, talking about how their lives intersected with six locations on the route. They spoke of their memories of growing up in socialist Yugoslavia; historical attitudes toward women; changes in the city; and aging in post-Yugoslav wars Bosnia. An audio guide was created to go along with the mapped locations. Artists Dorota Vlnova from Slovakia and Elena Subach from Ukraine used the stories and collected archival materials for a short film and an online photography project.

The pandemic also affected plans that Nas Most had with Art Aparat, an association of artists, educators, and researchers in Belgrade, to join Belgrade and Zenica seniors in a choir. Instead, online singing, painting, and handicraft classes for Zenica seniors launched in June via Viber. 

Virtual Sewing

Safija Vucenovic, 67, records herself with her phone camera while singing her favorite folk songs and sewing clothes at home. She then sends the videos to the Viber group, through which about 30 women follow online creative workshops and exchange videos and photos of their works. “Work is salvation,” Vucenovic says. “I have always been an active woman, and I have remained one. It’s very important to be active.”

Psychologist and psychotherapist Dzelila Mulic Corbo agrees that creative work and online connections help seniors “stay in touch with the outside world, have necessary contacts with others and make days meaningful.” 

When movement restrictions relaxed during the summer, Nas Most returned to some of its offline activities, while maintaining online art classes to encourage seniors to spend their time at home creatively.

But seniors’ often-limited digital skills can hamper online efforts, Nas Most president Saric points out. The organization has held several internet training sessions, but it is not enough. “It is a real blessing that we had the internet during this spring when we were under lockdown,” she says. “But we still need a lot more knowledge on how to use it.” 

Insufficient knowledge of digital tools such as social networks also makes it challenging to promote association activities online. “It often happens that we mistakenly delete some content from our Facebook page or forget to post something,” Saric says. The average age of the members is 60, and attempts to recruit younger volunteer staff have so far been unsuccessful.

Activities are financed from donations and membership fees, which have grown but are still insufficient. Saric believes younger volunteers could communicate more quickly and skillfully with the public through social networks, increase the group’s visibility, and help find donors. Financial contributions from the city have been symbolic, and the association has outgrown its space. The number of members and activities have long exceeded capacity, and the need for social distancing makes organizing activities even more difficult.

New helpers also could help create online and offline activities for seniors living outside of the city, many of whom lack the opportunity or financial resources for regular visits to Zenica. Nas Most has so far focused its activities only on seniors who can access its premises in the city center.

“There’s a growing desire for socializing through art and culture among seniors in Zenica,” Saric says. “They see how much fun we have, and they want to have fun too.” She hopes the pandemic will not stop the growth and outreach of Nas Most’s activities. “No one actually likes to sit alone at home and watch TV all day. It’s just that everyone thinks it’s the only thing we can fill our days with.”  

Lidija Pisker is an independent journalist and researcher who has written for Euronews, the BBC, Equal Times, and The Guardian, among others.

This article originally appeared on the Bosnian news site Inforadar.