Germany Is Exporting Its Grandmas

Merkel's government helps defray costs in a Polish nursing home

Germany Is Exporting Its Grandmas
In Poland, von Haldenwang celebrates her mother’s 94th birthday
Photograph by Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg

Sonja Miskulin has forgotten Pooki, her beloved cat. She can’t remember whether she has grandchildren and has no recollection of the nine-hour journey that separated her from her German home forever. Suffering from dementia, the wheelchair-bound former translator just celebrated her 94th birthday in a Polish nursing home. Her daughter sent her there in a bid for a better life and more affordable care.

Miskulin has joined the vanguard of a controversial movement: emigrant nursing home residents. The so-called grandma export trend has hands wringing in Germany; Munich’s leading newspaper denounced it as “gerontologic colonialism” and compared it to exporting trash. Yet more and more families say it’s their best option to provide a dignified old age for their parents—and save money—given the lack of affordable care at home. One in five Germans would now consider going abroad for a nursing home, according to a March survey by TNS Emnid, a German pollster.

The Poland-bound seniors are an early warning sign of a challenge of global proportions. As birthrates drop, life expectancies increase, and the Baby Boom generation heads into old age, the United Nations estimates the world’s population of people older than 60 will more than triple to almost 2 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, even for seniors cushioned by government aid in such countries as Germany, the cost of nursing home care is becoming prohibitive. German spending on long-term care for seniors is expected to increase from 1.4 percent of gross domestic product to 3.3 percent by 2060, the European Commission said in a report last year.

Miskulin’s new home is in a picturesque ski resort called Szklarska Poreba, which roughly translates to “glassmaking clearing,” named for the many glassworks that once defined the area. Her daughter, Ilona von Haldenwang, chose the nursing home unseen after studying its website and meeting with a placement broker. What began as an act of desperation—exporting her own mother—quickly began to make sense.

For four years, von Haldenwang watched with increasing despair as her mother’s health deteriorated in what she says was a poorly run German facility, even as it strained the women’s finances. Now, for about a third of the price, Sonja lives in a restored century-old luxury villa where she enjoys fine meals, around-the-clock nursing, and extensive physical therapy.

The trade-off for both mother and daughter is the 350 miles between them. The two used to live a two-minute walk apart. Von Haldenwang recalls the friend who helped move her mother protesting in disbelief as they climbed into the fir-covered Karkonosze Mountains on Poland’s border with the Czech Republic. “ ‘Oh God, oh God, where are we going? It’s the end of the earth,’ ” she remembers her friend saying. “Then we drove up the hill and she said, ‘Oh! It’s a palace!’ And I said, ‘See, I told you, everything will be good.’ ”

The facility’s owners say half the residents will soon be Germans, who have state-mandated long-term care insurance through a nearly 20-year-old program, a benefit out of the reach of most people outside Europe, including in the U.S.

The insurance pays €1,550 a month ($2,060) to German citizens who, like Miskulin, need the highest level of care. That’s less than half of the €3,250 average monthly bill for such care inside Germany. Nursing homes in Poland are marketing services that in some cases may be similar or better for about €1,200 per month, thanks to lower labor costs. The German government will pay as much as €700 toward nursing care outside the country. Though less than half the amount provided for in-country homes, it’s enough, together with most retirees’ pensions, to pay for monthly care costs—with cash to spare.

The arithmetic is compelling for older Germans and their grown children. The population is expected to be among the world’s oldest by 2050, on par with Japan, South Korea, and Italy, with about 15 percent of residents age 80 and older, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report.

Ingrid Fetz, 74, did the math after four back operations got her thinking about her financial vulnerability. “I worked so hard for what I have,” she says. She fears her savings won’t last if she has to pay for a nursing home near her 52-year-old daughter’s Munich home. And she’s concerned she’ll eventually have to sell the apartment she’d hoped to leave her family. “It would break my heart,” Fetz says. In Poland she would have money left over each month after paying for her care.

She began her search at a German-language website that promises affordable homes in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and the country that piqued her interest most of all, Poland. Like many of the German seniors searching there, Fetz has roots in the country: Her mother grew up speaking a Polish dialect in an ethnic German family near Warsaw, and Fetz spent her own childhood in what is now Poland before the end of World War II.

The lure of elderly Germans with money in the bank has caught the attention of Polish entrepreneurs and owners of resorts that have seen better days. One new facility has sought to recreate a piece of Germany within the Polish town of Zabelkow. Like Szklarska Poreba, Zabelkow is in Silesia, a region that was once part of German-speaking Europe. Ruled by the Habsburg Empire and then Prussia, it became part of Poland in 1945.

Fetz spent a week at the Zabelkow home to see if she liked it. She was impressed. Nurses speak German, the elevator announcement is in German, and the kitchen comes from a high-end German brand, Robert Bosch. Residents dine on classic German meals such as a cold supper of bread, cured meats, and cheese, while German Bundesliga soccer teams like Wolfsburg and Mönchengladbach face off on the large flat-screen television. The linens, the emergency call system, and the hospital gloves all come from Germany. Even the teaspoons are a German brand. The home quickly filled its 34 beds after an Easter opening; it’s finishing six more single rooms in the attic, which are already reserved for this November, says Fabrice Gerdes, who built the home together with his Polish father-in-law.

To find a home, Miskulin’s daughter, von Haldenwang, turned to a fixer. Guenter Stobrawe, a retired traveling salesman, started a placement service for Germans seeking Polish nursing homes last year with his wife, who is Polish and a former nursing home administrator in Germany, and a friend. Business has picked up in the past few months, Stobrawe says. The company has advised more than 100 families, placed eight seniors, and signed contracts for seven more to move in coming months to Poland, where it has partnerships with eight nursing homes. “Our clients aren’t on welfare,” Stobrawe says. “They’re people who have saved something.”

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