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Not only for laughter yoga

Priti Salian im  Seniorenhaus Sankt Anna in Arnsberg.
Priti Salian in Sankt Anna, an elderly care home in Arnsberg, Germany. | © Marita Gerwin

In India, the elderly are safe and secure, protected by the joint family, but lonely and isolated in Germany? Nothing of the sort! Indian author Priti Salian believes that India could learn a few things by looking at how Germany deals with growing old.

By Martin Jahrfeld

Growing old is a biological process but how it is experienced by people is also a question of culture, tradition and social structure. At first, the differences between India and Germany in this regard could hardly be bigger. The subcontinent has a young population – almost every second person is under the age of 25. India’s elderly are traditionally part of the family unit and spend their twilight years often in the family home with children and grandchildren. Affluent Germany, in contrast, is a highly individualistic culture with a rapidly ageing population with seniors often living alone, independently from their children. Yet these contrasts tell only half the story. A closer look reveals that the structures in the two countries are not quite as different as they appear to be.

‘When I started taking an interest in the subject I noticed that the lack of elderly carers in Germany is a big problem. It’s no different in India. Here, too, there is a shortage of carers and here, too, the number of older people is growing. 104 million Indians are already over the age of 60. The only difference to Germany is that nobody talks about the problems here,’ notes the Indian journalist Priti Salian.

While on a stay in Germany as part of a scholarship awarded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, a German foundation, the Bangalore-based journalist took a closer look at the situation in Germany. ‘I knew that society here has already aged dramatically and the country is one of the oldest in the world in terms of population. I wanted to know how one addresses these challenges,’ says Salian, explaining the motivation behind her research project.

During her time with the Kölner Stadtanzeiger, a German daily, she researched projects on the elderly in North Rhine-Westphalia where she spoke not only with researchers, carers and specialist doctors, but also with many seniors. She was excited by the results of her six-week research. ‘When it comes to dealing with the elderly, India can learn a great deal from Germany,’ says Salian, who writes primarily about social issues at home in India and reports for international media such as the English paper, The Guardian, and the BBC.  

In her research on Germany, the journalist seems to have been particularly impressed by projects implemented by the city of Arnsberg. The Sauerland municipality, now considered a model community for an age-friendly environment, promotes citizen engagement, finances multi-generational homes and ensures barrier-free access in public spaces. ‘I was particularly fascinated by a kindergarten where seniors work as volunteers. The seniors there had a full life and were optimistic about the future.’ However, there was also much in Remscheid, Cologne and Berlin that the journalist found convincing: ‘There are really many amazing projects here, for instance a theatre group for dementia patients, or multi-generational homes especially designed for LGBTQ seniors.’

Germany, a paradise for people growing old? Not quite. The downside of the demographic transition did not go unnoticed. ‘Many young Germans are afraid of poverty in old age and the fear is not unfounded. All the studies show that in the next 20 years, every fifth German pensioner will lead a precarious life,’ says Salian.

The journalist is convinced that India, too, should focus more on the challenges posed by an ageing society. That the elderly automatically live in the family unit with the younger generations and are looked after by children and grandchildren, is no longer a given in the subcontinent the way it was a few decades ago: ‘Respect for the elderly is deep-rooted in Indian culture, as expressed for example in the fact that people continue to follow the wishes of their parents even at a mature age. However, the challenges of work facing the new Indian middle class mean that many people can no longer devote much time to looking after the elderly. Even if it is actually taboo in Indian culture, many older people in India are increasingly living in homes.’

The journalist believes that India should find a more active role for seniors in society. ‘In Germany, pensioners are seen as productive people who can also acquire new skills even at a mature age and can attain new goals. In India, seniors are expected at most to pursue their religious activities, practise laughter yoga or go for a walk. But this demands too little of many of them, and life seems meaningless and boring. The projects that I saw in Germany offer interesting alternatives for which there is a need in India too.’