Aging guest workers are fresh poser for Germany

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany is grappling with an unexpected consequence of the industrialized world’s aging population: how to integrate its immigrant pensioners.

Elderly Turkish residents pray in the prayer room of the Victor Gollancz House Intercultural Senior Centre in Frankfurt January 31, 2008. The home has 12 of the 123 rooms occupied by Turkish immigrants. It equipped a prayer room to face Mecca, offers halal meals and holds Muslim services every Friday. Picture taken January 31, 2008. REUTERS/Alex Grimm

For decades, the authorities assumed Germany’s “guest workers,” recruited during the boom years after World War Two, would eventually return home.

It has now woken up to the fact that many of its 2.5 million people of Turkish origin are here to stay, and a large number are nearing retirement.

“For a long time Germany didn’t envision itself as a country of immigration,” said Ulrika Zabel, an intercultural officer with charity Caritas, which together with private care home operator Vitanas will open Germany’s fourth multi-cultural housing centre for elderly people next year in Berlin.

“That caused our problem with seniors -- we didn’t expect they would stay.”

Mustafa Makinist’s father arrived from Turkey in 1973 with plans to work for five years. He stayed on, working as a machine repairman at Siemens for 25 years.

Despite having a house in Turkey, the 68-year-old pensioner still spends half the year in Berlin. Makinist, 40, is planning to rent an apartment there when his father and mother are too old to travel between their adopted and home countries. But he dismissed a common belief that Turkish families care for their elderly relatives in large multi-generational households.

“Berlin society plays out in its senior housing -- it’s in these kinds of facilities that the city’s diverse culture is lived,” he said. “The second generation has assimilated, and in Berlin the apartments are very small.”

Preoccupied with security fears about youth violence, Germany’s integration efforts have focused up to now on helping young people. However, some organizations are starting to draw attention to the generation now reaching retirement age, and companies are addressing the niche.

About 18 percent of Germany’s immigrants are over 55, according to Federal Statistical Office data from 2006. More than 700,000 of these older immigrants are in the final decade of work before they are eligible to become pensioners.


Germany’s most recent report on ageing, published in 2005, said older migrants should be one of the country’s highest priorities. Immigrant seniors have more health problems, lower incomes and less knowledge about what social services are available than native Germans, the report found.

Immigrants who have been in Germany more than 25 years have generated an average of 850 euros a year per person for the government, it found, while the government had then spent about 5 million euros on programmes for immigrant seniors.

Senior immigrants are also less likely than Germans to get a public pension, though they are eligible if they have paid into the public system. The report found that in 2002, about 79 percent of Turkish immigrants older than age 65 were drawing a public pension, compared with about 96 percent of Germans.

For those who do have funds, private care for the aged is widespread. Vitanas is not the only private operator to enter the immigrant senior market. Berlin-based Marseille-Kliniken AG in February 2007 opened a care home offering “culturally sensitive” care for Turkish pensioners in Berlin.

Besides a prayer room facing Mecca and Turkish tea, the company says the home has bilingual staff and lets women be cared for by women and men by men.

There are other diverse housing centers in Frankfurt, the city of Duisburg near the Dutch border and in Berlin’s heavily Turkish Kreuzberg district.

Some other European countries are working on similar projects, said Harry Mertens, senior project manager at MOVISIE, the Netherlands centre for social development.

Britain and the Netherlands offer mixed or culturally specific housing with a combination of independent flats and communal gardens or kitchens, Mertens said, and in The Hague there are housing projects for pensioners from Surinam and China.


Cultural sensitivity is especially important as a set routine dictates the rhythms of life in a care home, said Berin Arukaslan, a family therapist and board member of the Turkish Union in Berlin-Brandenburg.

“I wouldn’t want to live in a house where I thought I had to live a regulated life that didn’t include what’s important to me,” Arukaslan said.

“For example, Turkish and Arab migrants have large families. I understand that in a normal German care home it can be a problem if the family comes too often with too many people and stays too long. They’re side by side with German gramps and grans who only see their kids at Christmas and Easter.”

Caritas’s Zabel illustrated the challenges with the story of an elderly Turkish woman eating a solitary dinner in her care home’s kitchen.

Uncomfortable with food not prepared according to Muslim religious rules, she had eaten little in the dining hall.

Her carers assumed she did not want to sit with men and sent her to the kitchen. Language barriers meant the care home had to call Caritas’s Zabel -- after complaints from the kitchen staff that the woman was in the way -- to learn the truth.

The Victor Gollancz House Intercultural Senior Centre in Frankfurt, which does outreach work with neighboring mosques, has equipped a prayer room to face Mecca, offers halal meals and holds Muslim services on Fridays.

Turkish immigrants occupy 12 of the 123 rooms: the centre is also open to native Germans. About 15 percent of the home’s staff speak Turkish.

“We had to find out what customs are near and dear to people, which rituals, which celebrations,” said director Ute Bychowski.

Reporting by Naomi Kresge; editing by Andrew Dobbie and Sara Ledwith