Friendship, not Loneliness The “Tante Inge” Initiative

The “Tante Inge” Initiative: Jutta Volgmann (left) und Nadine Fredow (right)
The “Tante Inge” Initiative: Jutta Volgmann (left) und Nadine Fredow (right) | Photo (Detail): © Steffi Zobl

Germans are at risk of ending up lonely and alone in old age, especially if they require geriatric care. The Berlin “Tante Inge” (i.e. Aunt Inge) initiative is doing what it can to change this by organizing events in old people’s homes which put old and younger people in touch with one another so that they can do things together.

Nadine brings a bunch of pink roses with her as a gift, as she has not seen Jutta for quite some time. Jutta remarks on how well the flowers go with her pullover. Nadine fetches a vase from the cupboard, fills it with water and places it at Jutta’s bedside here at the nursing home in Berlin’s Schöneberg district. Her small, light-flooded room is like an oasis – in the corridor outside it smells of medicine.

Nadine Fredow, born in 1975, and Jutta Volgmann, born in 1935: two vivacious women. Jutta turned 80 just a while ago – and says she still has trouble actually saying her age. She has needed care and a wheelchair ever since having a stroke four years ago. Nadine, a fitness instructor by profession, comes to visit her regularly. This involves quite a journey for her, as she lives on the outskirts of Berlin. They first met at a Tante-Inge event in July 2015. Nadine told Jutta that she no longer had a grandmother, and Jutta replied “As of today you have one again.”

Small pleasures

Their friendship is a stroke of luck for both of them – and exactly what the people behind Tante Inge hope to achieve. It was Kerstin Müller’s idea to bring old and younger people together so as to rescue senior citizens from their isolation. From talking to her elderly Great Aunt Inge – after whom the initiative was later named – she realized that many older people no longer have the chance to enjoy the small pleasures in life because they are too frail or lonely: they cannot go out on day trips, visit the cinema or meet up for a chat. This is something that is experienced particularly by those who live in old people’s homes and have hardly any contact with their families or friends. By launching an appeal on Facebook in early 2014, Kerstin Müller was quickly able to drum up a handful of people who were willing to help her set up the Tante-Inge-initiative.

Anne Brauer is also one of the founding members. As she explains, the first question was how in fact to bring young and old people together. The Tante-Inge-team devised events at old people’s homes to which they invited all generations. The Tante Inge strickt (i.e. Aunt Inge Knits) events involve people meeting to do handicrafts, while Tante Inge backt (i.e. Aunt Inge Bakes) gets people together who like to wield a rolling pin and bake cakes and the like. Ideally, the events put young people together with old people in tandems who subsequently continue to meet.

Tante Inge uses flyers, posters and postcards to advertise its activities. The organizers all work on a voluntary basis for the initiative and pay any expenses out of their own pockets. But they also get a lot in return for their commitment, says Anne Brauer, who explains that the concept met with great approval and support right from the start. In many cases, the old people’s homes pay for any costs that are incurred, for example the drinks and snacks served during the Tante Inge trinkt Cocktails (i.e. Aunt Inge Drinks Cocktails) events.

Drawing people out of their everyday routines

It was at one such cocktail evening that Jutta and Nadine met for the first time. Ten senior citizens and around 20 young people came to the party on the roof terrace of the care home. At first, the “youngsters” were a little self-conscious, remembers Jutta, but with her and Nadine the ice broke immediately.

For Jutta, who is full of life and very communicative, life in the nursing home can often be difficult. Her son visits only sporadically, and the closest person to her is her physiotherapist. She lived independently until she had her stroke, explains the former photographic laboratory technician. She used to travel a lot and still enjoys taking advantage of the excursions that are on offer at the care home. That said, it is not all that easy to make contact with the other residents – she explains that many are not interested in doing things together, and that initiatives like Tante Inge are needed to “draw them out” of their everyday routines.

Health problems and physical disabilities often mean that old people’s social networks shrink and that their social life comes to an end, confirms Dorothea Petrich, a social scientist who also dedicates herself to protecting old people from loneliness. The less mobile they become, the more likely they are to withdraw into themselves. And yet perceived isolation poses a risk to their wellbeing, self-esteem and health. All over Germany more and more initiatives are being set up to rescue old people from loneliness – everything from meetings with peers to excursions tailored to the needs of the elderly. The Nahbarn (i.e. a play on the words Nah, meaning near, and Nachbarn, meaning neighbours) project which Dorothea Petrich established in Jena involves volunteers visiting old people in their homes. In many cases, requests for such visits are made by those who know the senior citizens well – for example relatives who live far away.

A lust for life in one’s twilight years

Tante Inge also arranges direct contact upon request. So as to have enough volunteers, the initiative is further expanding its network with cooperation partners such as care facilities and care centres. It makes concrete suggestions to people interested in the scheme in other cities about how the Tante-Inge-concept could be adapted to their individual situation. Anne Brauer hopes that one day it will be taken for granted that younger members of society approach the older people in their immediate environment and include them in their activities. Most of the six Tante-Inge-organizers have a tandem partner. Anne Brauer has made friends with her neighbour. For years her neighbour accepted postal deliveries on her behalf, and now they drink the occasional glass of wine together or visit a Christmas market. It is small pleasures such as these which improve the quality of life for senior citizens significantly.
Jutta also dreams of one particular small pleasure: she hopes to be able to walk again in the summer, even if only with a walking frame. Nadine is to accompany her when she heads outside without her wheelchair. Enjoying an ice cream together is something both women are looking forward to tremendously.