An Interview with Manuela Schwesig
German Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth
By: Translation from German to English provided by Abdelhak Deki, Intern, AARP International
Publish Date: December
“We want to achieve a sustainable society.
It is important for me that our youth and the older generation exchange information and understand and support each other.”
Since December 2013, Manuela Schwesig has served as Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women,and Youth. In an interview with “Deutsche Seniorenliga,” she talked about the great political challenge to achieve equitable participation of all—younger and older generations alike—in society and to build and secure sustainable communities.
Q: Federal Minister, unlike in the United States, in Germany the topics of aging and being of a certain age unfortunately skew largely negative. What is your opinion on aging, and what are the objectives of your ministry with the program “Rethink Aging—the View on Aging”?
A: Minister Schwesig: Unfortunately, there are still opinions on aging that no longer meet the diversity of aging in today’s context. Many retired older adults still have many years of health and activity ahead. They do not belong in the scrap heap; they want to participate in life’s activities, especially spending time with family and others. This is an opportunity for us all: the more time older adults spend with the younger generations, the better it is for mutual understanding.
Today, aging presents itself in many different ways. Remember the 80-year-old marathon runner and the oldest quiz show candidate on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”? There are also older adults who are ill and in need of care. Of course, both groups matter equally. That’s why it is so important to me that younger and older people share experience, support, and understanding of each other. With our program “The View on Aging” we want to draw attention to the many facets of this phase in life. Additionally, we want to use social media—Facebook, Twitter, and www.programm-altersbilder.de—to share our information with young people. There can never be a single view on aging—no one size fits all. There will always be very different pictures we associate with the process of aging.
Q: How will the federal government ensure government social support systems for the aging generation without neglecting the needs of the younger generations?
A: Minister Schwesig: One of our major policy challenges is to ensure social security continues through demographic change and to keep a balance between the generations. It is crucial to meet the needs of today’s generation regarding the opportunities for the future generations and to also make sure that future participation is fair for all. Bearing in mind the future of high-quality care for the older generations, the federal government will introduce an intergenerational financing of long-term care. About 2.5 million people in Germany are currently in need of care. In 2030, there will be approximately one million more people to care for. People should remain able to afford sufficient care. Therefore, we are going to improve the conditions of long-term care through the “Pflegestärkungsgesetzt” act (which translates as the "long-term care strengthens law” act) and provide conditions for a long-term care fund. Overall, Germany has a stable, resilient, flexible, and sustainable social security system. Where inequities are visible, we will make the necessary corrections (e.g., the recent retirement package and the nationwide minimum wage).
Another issue is just as important to me: I believe a well-trained and motivated staff is essential for high-quality care. The nursing industry is already in need of qualified staff, and the increase in the number of older people in need of care will exacerbate the situation even more. Therefore, we have to succeed in inspiring people to join the nursing profession. This is possible if we can manage to attract and retain young people to the nursing profession. This strategy includes a modern educational landscape, a dynamic training and employment market, employee-oriented companies, and social appraisal of the nursing profession. An important step is the “Training and Qualification Offensive” initiated by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs. Thirty federal, state, and association partners have committed to implement a variety of measures over the 3-year campaign duration (through 2015). Their goal is to attract more young professionals by improving the framework conditions for existing nurses and also to encourage longer tenure in the profession. For this legislative term, my department is collaborating with the Federal Ministry of Health. Education and training must not lag behind other developments in nursing. It must be in accordance with the change in the caregiving structure to be modernized and made more attractive. I will ensure that the development of new nursing laws will retain the skills of the past, and new training will be free of charge.
Q: The Seventh Report on the Elderly “Care and Responsibility in the Community–Building and Keeping Sustainable Communities” is currently under development. What action areas does the report focus on?
A: Minister Schwesig: The Seventh Report on the Elderly Commission from the Federal Government was commissioned to determine how municipalities and local communities can facilitate a dignified and independent aging process in familiar surroundings for their citizens. In fact, the conditions for this have changed: In addition to the many young people and active older people, there are increasing numbers of people in need of care and help. Families can no longer be the sole providers of support. This is partly because people are mobile, especially in their work lives, and adult children are no longer living with their parents. In addition, women, who were formerly providing most of the care for their families, are increasingly becoming employed. This results in a lack of time for assistance and care. The development and promotion of support and concern at local levels may be an answer to these challenges. The Seventh Report on the Elderly highlights the conditions under which such local support and care structures work and what measures the policy can contribute to their development and enforcement. For this purpose, the commission shall formulate concrete recommendations to all social and political officials. The report is currently being prepared by interdisciplinary expert commission groups. The publication is expected to be released in Fall 2015.
Q: The issue of independent living is very important for older people. About 90 percent of this population lives in standard-equipped apartments and want to live surrounded by their families—in their neighborhoods—for as long as possible. How can we as a society support this desire for independent living into advanced age, and what political programs are available for people who are in need of help and support?
A: Minister Schwesig: In order to support older people living in their own apartments for as long as possible, several actions are necessary. In addition to an age-appropriate adaptation of their homes, it is also important to enhance the home environment through neighborhood support and professional services. The whole society, young and old, can make a significant contribution to a supportive neighborhood, whether through support by other in their daily routine, organizing and celebrating neighborhood block parties, establishing voluntary counseling and shopping services, or even implementing a community housing project. Good neighborhoods and commitment form the basis for a variety of support services, thus promoting the social cohesion of all generations. Through such actions, intergenerational bonds and independent living continue to be supported. This can be done through grants or loans at age-appropriate modification, or by a corresponding support in the implementation of a community housing project. Equally important is the promotion of local projects that allow older adults to lead an independent lifestyle (e.g., our program “centers for older adults”). The programs means that older people can obtain information close to their homes. Those who want to get involved are supported in finding offers that match their interests. Those who want to remain in the familiar surroundings of their own four walls can do so even with reduced mobility, disability, or illness. However, they will require help, support, and onsite maintenance.
I see a need for improvements in costumer protection, especially in terms of “living.” The housing and care contract law (WBVG) is an important element. Since 2009, it has controlled the legal content of contracts for housing with care and support services. Experience shows that there are still numerous contracts that contain clauses that penalize consumers. Residents can find support in my housing project, “higher consumer protection according to the living and care contract law: new forms of housing for older people and institutions for the disabled,” a nationwide consultancy that analyzes contracts obtained by the WBVG. The project started in June 2013 and will last 2 years. It is performed through the national Consumer Federation (vzbv) in cooperation with 11 state Consumer Federation offices. People who live in care facilities and their relatives from all federal states can call or email consumer organization experts to ask questions about their contracts. In addition, the vzbv supports people in enforcing their rights. Violations will be reported and filed in court, if needed.
Q: Finally, we would like to ask you a personal question: Do you have particular ideas about how you want to live out your golden years?
A: Minister Schwesig: It is important for me to stay fit and healthy as long as possible, to be active even in old age, and to stay involved with my family, particularly later in life.