Society Trends

Senior citizens: Granny lives in Slovakia now

31 October 2012
Welt am Sonntag Berlin

Three elderly women in Leipzig, Germany.
Three elderly women in Leipzig, Germany.

Germany is getting greyer every year. But the country has a shortfall of trained nurses for pensioners, and care homes are expensive. Those outside Germany are much cheaper – and German families are sending their seniors into them.

Outside the door, it’s Slovakia.  Mrs Ludl doesn’t know anything about that, because of her dementia – or maybe in this case, one might say, thanks to her dementia. It’s been a month since her son and her daughter-in-law sat the old lady in their motor home and drove here to Zlatna na Ostrove near the Hungarian border. It’s 700 kilometres from her old home in Bavaria, and driving here took a whole day. A nursing home in Germany would have been too expensive. That at least is the argument of the son, who runs a toy store out of his home.

For more and more Germans, the last journey is leading to a nursing home outside Germany. In countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and in Spain and Thailand too, there is a growing number of facilities that are geared towards Western Europeans and are often even run by German operators. What they have in common is a level of care that is far less expensive than it is in German institutions. Here in Germany nursing home costs are rising fast – just under 2,900 euros per month for Pflegestufe 3, or Care Level 3.

Meanwhile, pensions are stagnating, which is why the number of welfare recipients in need of care is going up significantly. According to unpublished figures from the Federal Statistical Office, the number of people in 2010 who received “help for care,” a form of social assistance, went up from 392,000 to 411,000 – an increase of about five percent. The decisive factor, though, is something else. The government can also place part of the financial burden of the care onto the children and so have them pay some of the nursing home costs. The consequence is often a home in Eastern Europe.

“Good, medium German standard”

If one were to get angry at this, one might say that more and more Germans are deporting their parents abroad for financial reasons, and then forgetting them. But if we ask the children themselves why they do it, some, Frau Ludl’s son, for example, say: “It can’t be worse for my mother there than it is in Germany.”

The nursing home where the old lady now lives opened just a few months ago. In the poor farming village, the multi-storey modern building looks out of place: green, meticulously trimmed lawns, a lit-up aquarium with brightly coloured fish, and ultra-modern lifts. In Frau Ludl’s room, in contrast, the atmosphere is nostalgic. On the wall hang black and white photographs, put up by her son. Some show her as a young woman, and others show long-dead relatives. In the middle hangs a picture of the sweepstakes and stationery shop at home, which she ran for decades. “My shop is out there somewhere,” she says, looking longingly out the window, “but I can’t go there any more.”

Before her journey to Zlatna na Ostrove she had been in care for almost six years. First in a home in Bavaria, where she was pumped full of psychotropic drugs. Soon she no longer recognised her son and could no longer walk – and all that for 3,100 euros a month. After that, her daughter-in-law took care of her. But as the old lady with the thinning, curly white hair slowly lost her mind, the daughter-in-law threatened to pack her bags and leave her husband. The couple began to look around for an alternative. On the internet, they found a German placement agent.

The man who places the German senior citizens in Eastern Europe, is named Artur Frank. He finds homes for German and Austrian dependents in need of care. He describes the institutions where he places them as “good, medium German standard.”

By 2050, one in fifteen Germans will be in care

There are others too who believe that German citizens can be looked after more cheaply abroad. Nursing homes for German citizens are found in Lanzarote and Gran Canaria, in Poland and on the Spanish mainland. Often they have German sponsors. Given the high unemployment in the country, Spain is an obvious partner for German citizens in need of care, says Günter Danner, German Social Security lobbyist in Brussels.

For the Ludls, the arrangement to have the mother sent abroad is worth it even today, although the care fund for her contributes only about half of what the Ludls would have to pay for a home in Germany. The home in Zlatna na Ostrove costs around 1100 euros a month, including the meals, which means that with the 700 euros in care money they receive, the Ludls need to come up with only 400 euros out of their own pockets. And Mrs Ludl’s pension covers that. Germany’s social systems would benefit from signing contracts with foreign care homes, where the labour costs for the nurses are far lower.

Lower wages for the carers also means less strain on the shrinking number of staff: by 2050, it is predicted that one in every fifteen Germans will be in care. Many German home operators fear the competition from beyond Germany’s borders. Apparently they are right to, when one hears Frau Ludl’s son rave about the Mediterranean climate and the friendly people of Slovakia.

He and his wife want to stop by and see her every two to three months in the future. No, he doesn’t think that he has “dumped” his mother. “People suffering from dementia do not have the same sense of time as the rest of us. Whether you come for a visit every three days or every two months, they don’t notice.” What’s more important is: “If my wife and I come, the visit is going to be heartfelt.”

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