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Growing Old Gracefully in Germany

DW staff (jp)December 11, 2004

According to estimates, more than a third of the German population will be over 60 by the year 2050. What kind of quality of life, health, and care can the elderly expect in Germany?

Germany's elderly have felt the pinch of welfare cutsImage: Bilderbox

The number of senior citizens in Germany is growing all the time -- and Germans are also living longer. In less than 50 years' time, 12 percent of the population will be over 80, and scientists estimate that by the year 2050, the life expectancy of the average German will have increased by a decade.

So what is life like for Germany's ever-expanding ranks of senior citizens?

The threat of ageism

Senioren surfen im Internet
Ageism is a common problem in the workplaceImage: dpa

For those still working, getting old isn't much fun. Otto Wulff, Chairman of Germany's Senior Citizens' Union, is currently planning to bring a constitutional case against the increasing discrimination against senior citizens in the workplace.

Only 35 percent of 55 to 65 year-olds in Germany still work -- half the number of working senior citizens in Switzerland, Scandinavia and the US.

Wulff argues it's Germany's loss.

"Top class academics and scientists are relocating abroad. Germany can't afford to lose these people," he said.

Pensions hardship?

Meanwhile, Franz Ruland, CEO of the German Association of Pension Insurers, said he is worried that the country might soon witness a rise in poverty among the elderly. In an interview with German daily Die Welt, he said the long-term unemployed are paying too little into pension schemes, which will lead to later hardship.

"Particularly in the eastern states, widespread unemployment is going to lead to some serious problems," he pointed out.

Moreover, Berlin's efforts to combat economic stagnation have included cutting pension payments. Amid expert predictions that the percentage of the nation's working population aged 65 and over will reach more than 35 percent by 2030, the level of retirement pensions was frozen in 2004 as a part of the government's economic reform package.

Rentner protestieren gegen eine mögliche Kürzung ihrer Rente
In 2003, pensioners took to the streets to protest welfare cutsImage: AP

The move was designed to help the government plug a shortfall of some €10.3 million ($12 million) in state pension funds, caused by the ever-ageing population and fewer contributions to the fund due to high unemployment.

Needless to say, the decision met with strong resistance from Germany's 20 million pensioners.

Quality care

But for the lucky ones, living to a ripe old age is rewarded with state-assured, quality of life care -- unlike in days gone by.

Ingrid Espeter is director of the Barbara von Renthe Fink Old Age Home. She can remember what life was like for the elderly members of her family, some 30 years back.

"One aunt lived in a hall with 12 demented women," she said. "One of them always screamed and another just laid around like a zombie. It was a horrible atmosphere."

Much has changed since then.

"Older people are no longer neglected in old age homes," Espeter said. "Now they're well taken care of, kept active and entertained. There are many activities on offer; music therapy, cooking groups, ferry trips, and many more things to keep seniors stimulated and happy. These programs are obligatory if a home wants to receive state subsidies."

A life of leisure

Deutsche Rentner in Spanien
Many pensioners discover the joys of travel late in lifeImage: dpa

Heinz Freimuth retired from his job five years ago, and is more active than ever. At 66, he runs marathons, is an avid theater goer, offers counselling to other seniors at the local city hall, and makes time for his children and grandchildren.

He claims the favorite pastime for older Germans is not sport or culture, but travel.

"Lots of seniors collect a very generous pension," he pointed out. "They can take fantastic trips around the world, to South Africa, America, New Zealand. When my generation is no longer around, billions of euro will be inherited."

Many in Germany complain that while the rest of the country is tightening its belt, old people have never had it so good. But the older generation says it deserves a break.

"My generation saved a lot of money for old age," Freimuth said. "The majority of people between 60 and 80 have a lot of money at their disposal. I see it in our closer circle of friends. They buy new cars, and have more than one, own real estate, and take luxurious vacations."

Future generations face uncertain old age

A lot of retired people choose to move to a senior citizens' home rather than live aloneImage: BilderBox

For seniors needing minimal assistance, the state can provide home-care workers who visit anywhere from once a week to a few times a day, to aid in medicine-taking, meals, grooming, shopping and cleaning.

High unemployment has also prompted many families to care for their parents themselves, for which they are compensated with a few hundred euro per month by the state. There are also special state-subsidized senior residences: apartments blocks or rooms exclusively for seniors with on-the-premises 24 hour emergency service, as well as a multitude of high quality old age homes for those needing constant care.

But the real question is whether the high standard of care enjoyed by senior citizens today be available for the generations to come?

"It will be a financial problem," Espeter said. "The high standard of care we have now will not be possible in the future, because more personnel will be needed."