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Fit Centenarians

DW staff (df)August 26, 2007

The rapidly growing number of elderly citizens in Germany requires new thinking around housing, medical care, products and services.

An elderly woman
Growing numbers means more cloutImage: Bilderbox

Auguste Bremer has two children, five grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild -- and is proud to be 103.

"I don't feel like a 103-year-old -- I'm feeling great," Bremer, who lives in a nursing home for the elderly in Cologne, said in an interview with the German news agency DPA.

The number of seniors reaching the milestone of 100 has been rising steadily.

Out of a population of over 82 million in Germany today, the number of seniors who are 80 or older has nearly doubled since 1980 to four million, according to the latest statistics.

Headlines such as "Eldest Resident in Bonn Celebrates Her 108th Birthday" or "All the Best for Your 102nd Birthday" are becoming more commonplace. Irmgard von Stephani, a Berlin resident who will be 112 on Sept. 20, is the oldest German alive.

Centenarian boom

Elderly women studying at university
Keeping the mind and body active is key to longevityImage: dpa Zentralbild

Every year, German president Horst Köhler sends a personal congratulatory note to every centenarian and starting at 105, a birthday greeting every year. In 2003, Köhler had sent 4,210 missives; last year he sent 5,217.

Germans are not only living longer lives, but healthier ones too, meaning the need for a societal infrastructure that accommodates the needs of an aging population.

Besides suitable housing for the elderly, public institutions need to provide ramps for wheelchairs and stores need to carry products for the aged, such as walking canes or orthopedic shoes, according to Ursula Lenz, a spokeswoman of a federal agency for the elderly (BAGSO) in Bonn, who also spoke to DPA.

Meeting the needs of the elderly

The vast majority of those 80 or over live in private households, either with their families or on their own with household help. Of those 11 percent living in nursing homes, most tend to require round-the-clock care.

Common health problems afflicting the elderly include dementia as well as heart and circulation disorders, diabetes, strokes and a vulnerability to developing tumors -- both benign and malignant. Many of these chronic illnesses can be controlled with preventive medicine.

Germany's health care system is inadequately prepared to cope with the growing numbers of health problems that affect seniors, according to experts in the field of geriatrics.

Alternatives to the nursing home

Most seniors prefer to live at home rather that in an institution, and there are alternatives to the classic nursing home, such as multi-family housing where several generations live in separate apartments, but under one roof, according to Lenz.

Another trend which has been growing in the United States is the concept of "independent living" in which seniors who are still relatively healthy live in a community where meals are provided and shops, banks, transportation and medical services are easily accessible.

Product testers

A house
Multi-family housing permits several generations to live under one roofImage: Baufritz

Businesses often take the lead in providing services and products that are geared to the elderly, but suitable for the general population as well. Seniors are often subjects in marketing surveys that determine whether products are user friendly, such if mobile phone buttons are too small for less-nimble fingers or whether the print is too fine in instruction manuals for aging eyes.

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's family minister, wants the government to invest in a program called "Business Engine for the Elderly," which advises companies on products and services suited to an aging population.

Keeping active and happy key to longevity

Centenarians who are energetic and healthy enough prefer to live on their own. Maria Milz told DPA that when she reached 100, she decided to leave the nursing home where she was living because "there were too many old people there."

Many seniors keep fit with sporting activities. Wolfgang Lob, 81, told DPA he took part in a half-marathon in preparation for the full 42- kilometer (26-mile) run in Cologne, which will take place on Oct.7. Gerontologists say being physically and mentally active is the key to remaining healthy in later years.

Auguste Bremer, although suffering from hearing and vision problems, provided an insight into her longevity.

"A person must be happy," she said. "Those who are satisfied with their lives live longer."