Skip to main content

Aging gracefully: Germans grow gray together

By Sigrid Lupieri, special for CNN
June 19, 2013 -- Updated 1747 GMT (0147 HKT)
Tenant Dorothea Straube-Koberstein bakes a cake with Christoph Remmlinger, a personal care assistant, at a shared apartment for seniors in Potsdam, Germany. Tenant Dorothea Straube-Koberstein bakes a cake with Christoph Remmlinger, a personal care assistant, at a shared apartment for seniors in Potsdam, Germany.
HIDE CAPTION
Growing old gracefully: Seniors in Germany
Growing old gracefully: Seniors in Germany
Growing old gracefully: Seniors in Germany
Growing old gracefully: Seniors in Germany
Growing old gracefully: Seniors in Germany
Growing old gracefully: Seniors in Germany
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eight German citizens aged between 80 and 100 share an apartment together
  • A growing trend in Germany is for elderly citizens to avoid institutionalized care
  • Germany has one of highest percentages of residents aged over 65
  • New law provides seniors with up to $13,300 to establish community apartment

(CNN) -- In a spacious, sunlit apartment on the outskirts of Potsdam, Germany, eight roommates between the ages of 80 and 100 share a kitchen, a living room -- and 24-hour nursing care.

Though all tenants suffer from dementia, these seniors aren't whiling away in a nursing home. In the open living area, complete with a flat-screen TV and photos of grandchildren on the wall, an elderly tenant draws, another arranges a flower bouquet, and a third runs a vacuum cleaner repeatedly over the same spot.

"It will never get clean," says Birgitta Neumann, 56, the founder and coordinator of the shared living arrangement, stepping over the vacuum cleaner cord snaking across the hallway. "But it doesn't matter."

As part of a growing trend in Germany, what really matters is that elderly citizens stay out of institutionalized care.

While graying populations affect Europe as a whole, Germany has one of the highest percentages of residents aged 65 or older in the world. A projected 4.5 million citizens—most of them seniors—will require costly long-term care by 2050, according to Federal Statistical Office data.

What to expect from Obama in Berlin
Foreign workers solve skills shortage
Nestle's single serve coffee revolution

In a recent public health insurance survey, however, about 82% of Germans say they do not want to grow old in a nursing home. In response, as of January 2013, a new law provides seniors with a maximum grant of €10,000 ($13,300) to establish a community apartment as well as a monthly subsidy of €200 ($266) per tenant.

"Since 2005, the number of people requiring long-term care has been rising, but the percentage of those living in nursing homes is decreasing," says Heinz Rothgang, a professor at the University of Bremen's Centre for Social Policy Research. "Nursing homes are total institutions where patients lose their rights, but in alternative settings you can live in a familiar environment and your life is more meaningful."

While the first shared apartment for seniors appeared as a novelty in the mid-1990s, a recent boom means that almost 2,000 senior residents live in shared housing arrangements in Berlin alone, according to a Journal of Clinical Nursing study. And as the generation that witnessed the social revolutions of the 1960s grows older, the trend is gaining momentum.

"The image of aging is changing," says Henning Scherf, a sprightly septuagenarian and former mayor of the northern German city of Bremen. "In the past it had to do with frailty and black clothes. Now there is everything, from traditional people to those who want to do things differently."

For more than two decades, Scherf, 74, and his wife have been sharing a large townhouse in the center of Bremen with seven other roommates between the ages of 17 and 79. While some of the tenants have changed over the years, the household now includes a couple of teachers, a retired priest, an engineer, a doctor and a student.

"The beauty of our home is that it's so colorful and different," says Scherf, author of "Gray is Colorful," an autobiographical account of aging. "We are a family through choice."

When it comes to choosing alternative housing arrangements in Germany, shared apartments aren't the only option. Across the country, multi-generational homes combine assisted living apartments for seniors with nursery schools and allow elderly tenants to remain in the neighborhoods they grew up in.

"We haven't built a nursing home in 10 years and we don't plan on building any," says Alexander Künzel, chief executive of the Bremer Heimstiftung, a foundation providing long-term care services. Instead, the foundation offers multigenerational residential buildings such as the Haus im Viertel, or House in the Neighborhood, where seniors can rent one of 85 apartments with round-the-clock assistance and a nursery school next door.

"There is an African saying that goes 'You need a whole village to raise a child,'" Künzel says as children from the nursery school at the Haus im Viertel pour into the yard for recess. "But I say that you need a whole neighborhood for an elderly person to live."

For Edith Teeg, 88, who moved into one of the apartments at the multigenerational home over a year ago, maintaining her freedom is crucial. She has since joined a theater group, takes a language class, and goes to the gym.

"I am completely independent," Teeg says. "Here I am my own master."

Back at the shared apartment in Potsdam, the rigors of life in a nursing home are also nowhere to be seen. The elderly tenants are free to go to bed and get up when they choose. Relatives and grandchildren often spend the night in the apartment's guest room. Most of all, the residents keep busy and feel useful helping out with household chores or working on art projects.

As lunchtime approaches, the day-time nurse prepares a dish of sweet-and-sour eggs, a reminder of childhood cuisine many of her patients are familiar with. The tenants shuffle over to the dining room table.

"It's all very normal here," says Neumann, who oversees the daily running of the apartment. "Just like at home."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0626 GMT (1426 HKT)
A year ago, 1,000 garment workers died in the collapse of Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. Here's a look at what has changed since then.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0453 GMT (1253 HKT)
Focus is on the fish as U.S. President starts tour with visit to legendary Tokyo restaurant.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Fireworks are fantastic and human endeavor has its place, but sometimes Mother Nature outshines any performance we can produce.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0306 GMT (1106 HKT)
In 1987, China sent its very first email. Here's what it said,
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0213 GMT (1013 HKT)
The world's new fastest elevator will fling you from earth to the 95th floor before you're done reading this article.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
In one U.S. state, a new bill will allow ordinary citizens to carry guns in all sorts of places. Does it make you feel safer?
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
In South Korea, volunteer divers are risking their lives to rescue victims of the sunken ferry.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
Park Jee Young, 22, helped passengers escape as the Sewol ferry sank -- giving out life jackets while refusing to wear one herself.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1643 GMT (0043 HKT)
What did outgoing manager David Moyes get wrong in his six months with English Premier League football team Manchester United?
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
In honor of Shakespeare's birthday, here are 15 of the world's most amazing theaters.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
CNN exclusive: Australian officials are hammering out a new agreement for widening the Flight 370 search area.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
Malaysian officials sent to brief Chinese families are armed with little to no information.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1545 GMT (2345 HKT)
When a team of Indian surgeons opened up the stomach of a 63-year-old man, they had no idea they'd extract a fortune.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 0701 GMT (1501 HKT)
Do these photos CNN of gun-toting men wearing green uniforms prove Russian forces are in eastern Ukraine?
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1711 GMT (0111 HKT)
If the Duchess wears it, then your fashion career is sorted for life.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1120 GMT (1920 HKT)
Browse through images you don't always see on news reports from CNN teams around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT