Germany facing care crisis for the elderly | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 20.10.2011

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Germany facing care crisis for the elderly

Germany's population is growing older, and more and more of its aging population needs care. Parliament has passed a new law aimed at helping working people care for family members, but more help is urgently needed.

An elderly woman's hands

Elderly Germans face a shortage of caregivers

As Germans grow older, caring for them has taken on new urgency. On Thursday, the German parliament passed a new law aimed at making it easier for working people to care for family members.

The new law allows a person to reduce their working hours for up to two years with only limited financial consequences. But the reform package, meant to relieve some of the high costs of care and an acute caregiver shortage, is not the big leap needed to alleviate the elderly care problem over the long term.

Tackling a number of other crucial issues has been postponed until early next year due to differences within the government coalition.

Diana Andrzejewski is a trained caregiver. She has chosen a career generally seen as unattractive in Germany, but she can't imagine doing anything else.

"I just, sort of, slipped into the job. It was a welfare project that was supposed to last a year. I had the choice between kindergarten and working with the elderly. I ended up in a nursing home and I liked it so much that I thought this was my calling in life," said Andrzejewski.

Two women in wheelchairs accompanied by an attendant

The new home care law aims to take some of the pressure and costs off the nursing home industry

Elderly care suffers from a poor image

These are just the kind of people that Christiane Sievert is desperately looking for but usually without success, says the director of the St. Konrad Nursing Home in Berlin.

"It's basically futile. When a caregiver is absent - for example, I have someone who is retiring - then my hands are more or less tied," she said.

Shift work, chronically understaffed teams and lousy pay: that's the image of the nursing home industry these days. After three years of training, a caregiver earns an average of 2,200 euros ($3,000) a month. Many nursing homes advertise on their own, promising opportunities for advancement - which there are in nursing care - but to no avail.

"We were at a trade fair, but unfortunately discovered that there was zero interest in caregiving among young people," said Sievert.

Cutbacks have created a care emergency

Sievert said since the 1990s the number of apprenticeship training positions has been reduced. The result has been fewer and fewer applicants.

Andreas Westerfellhaus, of the German Nursing Council, the umbrella organization for the caregiving industry, says the country's leaders have been aware of the problem for decades.

A caregiver feeding an elderly woman

A career in caregiving is unattractive to most young people

"The politicians simply missed the boat. We talked about the shortage of doctors very early on, but totally ignored the similarly large, and possibly even larger, structural deficits in the nursing industry. I know of nursing homes that offer 5,000 euros as a bonus to workers who recruit a new employee," said Westerfellhaus.

Westerfellhaus warns there is already a caregiver emergency in the industry - and the number of elderly from the baby-boom years is growing rapidly. The nursing home industry estimates some 300,000 additional caregivers will be needed by 2025.

The Nursing Council says Germans will have to pay more in future for dignified care and has called for urgent investment in training programs.

Germany's 1.2 million caregivers and nursing staff have begun considering how to better their own situation. Among the options are stronger unionization to increase their leverage for better pay, improved working conditions and less overtime.

Author: Doris Krannich / gb
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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