I have no idea why, but the past weeks have provided me with very interesting insights into life and society while riding the bus around Berlin. I shared my recent experiences with the unpleasant and disturbed man beside me, as well as the day a passenger beside me collapsed. There is yet another incident that made me contemplate the future.
Both my mother-in-law and my father used a rollator, and my mother swore she would use one the day she could no longer walk on her own two feet. Here in Germany, a country that takes walking and independent movement very seriously basically from the time you leave the womb, remaining mobile and active in your senior years is not only encouraged, but also safeguards personal independence. For countries and cultures in Asia, Latin America and Africa where the concept of senior citizens living along or in a home for the aged is unthinkable, owning a rollator and all dealing with all the challenges that come with commuting with it is not really such a salient point in daily life. There is always a younger family member to latch on to, or to send on errands. Here in Europe, however, families with several generations living under one roof is a rare thing these days, and the pockets of senior citizen communities have exploded, and providing private care for the elderly has become a very lucrative business.
For those who can and want to still be up and about, but find the walking stick insufficient support, a rollator is the way to go. If you get tired, just put on the breaks and have a seat. You never have to fight for a seat no matter where you go, unless of course you end up in a bus or a train. This is where the trouble begins. Two old ladies with their collators boarded the bus along with a man in a wheelchair. I simply assumed they were taking a trip to the nearby lake and lived in one of the many home for the elderly in the area. The women parked their rollators and sat on them without saying another word, and the man negotiated his way between them. Two stops later there was a huge commotion when the man tried to get out and one of his wheels got stuck on the rollator. The driver, who had come around to unfold the handicap ramp disentangled the two seniors who had now burst into an agitated exchange of unpleasantries. Once the man finally rolled off and away, the driver turned towards the women furiously, scolding them and saying that it is against the rules to sit on the rollator in a moving bus. They are supposed to sit on a regular seat like everyone else for their own safety. If the bus suddenly has to break, there is no guarantee that the rollator will stay in place and the person will remain on it.
This did not go down well, and things escalated very quickly between the offended women who refused to move, and the driver who was losing his patience. At one point he even threatened to throw them both off the bus, but stomped back to his seat instead. We all got off at the end of the line and both women disembarked muttering curses to the driver. Though I do not condone the tone he used with the women, I fully agree with his argument.
Fast-forward two weeks, and I was on the bus home from work. Once again there was a senior citizen who got on with her rollator and sat on it. This time the the driver was not taking any nonsense and announced over the speaker that he was not moving the bus until the woman moved to a proper seat. Again, I do not condone the public humiliation, but he did his job and acted in the interest of passenger safety.
It is not easy to grow old, much less grow old alone. Inventions such as the rollators are meant to make lives of the aged more comfortable, but with every new technological development there is always a social component to consider, an angle that was not taken into account while designing it. I suppose what irks me most is the disrespectful tone people take with the aged these days, at least here in Berlin. There is no sense of dignity in being old in a fast-paced city that thrives in digital worlds. There are thousands of groups around the globe fighting for children’s rights, women’s rights, gay rights, indigenous communities, the environment or animal rights, but in comparison, there are very few voices fighting for the dignity and rights of the old.