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Playing bingo and walking with senior citizens for research into social cohesion

Playing bingo and Dutch shuffleboard and going for walks with senior citzens is regular fare for Marieke van der Heijden, a master’s student in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology. She is researching social cohesion in the De Kooi neighbourhood for the Learning with the City project.

In Learning with the City, students work on social issues as part of their degree programme. Van der Heijden was keen as soon as she heard about the project. ‘What appealed to me most was that Learning with the City means I can do a relevant final project that doesn’t end up gathering dust. My research is relevant to the neighbourhood.’

Research in the De Kooi neighbourhood in Leiden

Van der Heijden’s research is about social cohesion in public spaces, in this case the De Kooi neighbourhood in Leiden Noord. ‘This neighbourhood has traditionally been working-class but in recent years migrants have settled here too. I noticed that these two groups don’t really do much together and wanted to find out why. What would change this? And do they want that? These are the questions I’m looking into.’

Van der Heijden is mainly trying to answer these questions by talking and listening to the people she meets daily at the ‘Het Gebouw’ and ‘De Kooi’ community centres. They are mostly senior citizens. ‘The conversations I have are about all kinds of things,’ Van der Heijden laughs. ‘Sport, the grandchildren, holidays. And that’s how it should be because people are here to relax. In between the stories I ask questions about the neighbourhood and whether they think it has changed over the years.’

Walking with senior citizens

Van der Heijden always goes for a walk with senior citizens from the Het Gebouw community centre on Tuesday mornings. The walk, which around five to ten senior citizens take part in, is organised by interns Noah and Chantal, both Sport Sciences students at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. ‘We plan a different route each time and also look at who is in the group on the day itself,’ say the interns. ‘If, for instance, people with a rollator are joining us, we adapt the route accordingly.’

In the group this time are a number of loyal walkers. Coby and Anita, for example, two women who met at the community centre and became friends there. And Kees, a man in his 70s who talks nineteen to the dozen about politics, his son and his wife. ‘We’ve been together for 28 years. It was love at first sight.’

Looking after each other

After the walk they always have lunch at the community centre. ‘They are always very generous here with meals that don’t cost much at all,’ says Van der Heijden. ‘And they really look after each other. The lunches aren’t part of my research but I often join in because I can have such nice chats with people.’

Preliminary results

Van der Heijden has spent three months in total with the senior citizens and has just started analysing her research data. ‘What I can already conclude from the data is that the two community centres are really important for the neighbourhood but that they are two separate worlds,’ she says. ‘People who go to one community centre don’t go to the other, and vice versa. I want to find out why that is. It would be nice if local residents could benefit from both community centres and expand their network.’

Learning with the City is the initiative of the Municipality of Leiden, Leiden University, University of Applied Sciences Leiden and mboRijnland. Students work on social issues as part of their studies. Interested? Contact Learning with the City at info@lerenmetdestad.nl. Students work on issues in the neighbourhood from the Learning with the City premises at Het Gebouw on Arubapad 2 in Leiden.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp
Photos: Marc de Haan

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