“We Had to Draw Lots About Who Could Participate”

Marc Beckmann/Ostkreuz

As the German population grows older, most elderly people live in nursing homes and have hardly any contact with the younger generation.

Generationsbrücke Deutschland organizes regular meetings between seniors and children and builds institutional networks. The idea is so successful that this initiative has been exported to Poland and to the German-speaking community in Belgium (“Eastern Belgium”). Antonios Antoniadis, Minister for Health, Social and Family Affairs of Eastern Belgium, explains what the innovative concept is all about.

How did you first learn about the Generationsbrücke?

Antonios Antoniadis: I was at an event in Aachen, and one of the guests was Martin Schulz, then still president of the European Parliament and today the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). He came up to me and urged me to take a look at this project in Aachen – a project that was about bringing together elderly citizens and children and that had become an export hit. This piqued my interest, of course.

Antonios Antoniadis, Minister der deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft (Ostbelgien) für Familie, Gesundheit und Soziales.Antonios Antoniadis, Minister der deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft (Ostbelgien) für Familie, Gesundheit und Soziales.

Antonios Antoniadis

Antonios Antoniadis is a member of the Socialist Party. The Belgian politician was elected regional president of the Socialist Party for the German-speaking region in Belgium. Since June 30, 2014, he has been Minister for Health, Family and Social Affairs of the Government of the German-Speaking Community in Belgium.

What did you personally find interesting about the initiative?

Antonios Antoniadis: Actually, two things. First, studies show that the medication intake of nursing home residents goes down if they have contacts and ties with young people. I think it’s fascinating that this kind of contact has such an impact, even on people’s health. This was the main reason why we wanted to import it into the German-speaking community in Eastern Belgium. Second, I like the underlying idea: Young people benefit from the elderly people’s wealth of experience, and the elderly people benefit from the lightheartedness and the energy of youth that can be infectious and inspiring.

Is there something unique that characterizes the Generationsbrücke?

Antonios Antoniadis: The meetings are clearly structured. Most comparable initiatives in our region offer these kinds of meetings only once, around Christmas, Easter, or even carnival. The Generationsbrücke makes sure that regular meetings take place and that a special relationship can emerge. For the young people have a partner in the nursing home and can identify with him or her.

How did you actually start the cooperation with the Generationsbrücke?

Antonios Antoniadis: When I first visited the project, I met Horst Krumbach, the founder and director of Generationsbrücke Deutschland, who is really burning for the project. You can tell that he is enthusiastic, and his enthusiasm is infectious. After a failed first attempt, when I tried to get in touch from a distance, I made another attempt, taking leading employees of nursing homes directly to the Generationsbrücke in Aachen. They too were enthusiastic and decided on the very same day to join the Generationsbrücke and organize a Generationsbrücke in Eastern Belgium.

Generationsbrücke Deutschland

Founded in 2009, the Generationsbrücke Deutschland fosters intergenerational understanding. Following a systematized methodology, the social enterprise builds regular, long-term relationships between kindergarten and school-age kids and nursing home residents. Today, there are 146 cooperation partners in eight federal states in Germany, and the organization is also active in Poland. 2018 will see new collaborations in Belgium and Russia.

The BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt has supported Generationsbrücke Deutschland from an early stage. Horst Krumbach is a member of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network. 

In most European countries, the demographic development poses a challenge, as the populations continue to grow older. What is the situation in Eastern Belgium?

Antonios Antoniadis: The demographic development is in no way a curse or a problem, as it is sometimes presented. I sometimes tell the nursing home residents: Don’t feel bad for still being with us! You are not a burden. It’s normal that you are so old and that you are here. After all, the fact that people grow older today is actually a medical success story.

You do not have a shortage of nursing staff, like Germany and other countries?

Antonios Antoniadis: Most senior citizens in Eastern Belgium, i.e., more than 85 percent, live in their own homes. They are cared for by their relatives, at least the relatives contribute a lot. If it wasn’t for the family, the nursing services in Belgium would also be overwhelmed. Currently, we have 751 people – out of a total of 1,520 senior citizens in need of care – who live in nursing homes. So the situation is quite manageable.

The Aging of Europe's Populations

The EU populations are constantly growing older because of low birth rates and increased life expectancy. According to Eurostat forecasts, the proportion of over-80-year-olds in the EU population will more than double by 2080. Out of a total of 520 million EU citizens, there will be almost 54 million people aged 80 and over who will need help from their families or the government.

So, unlike Germany and many other EU countries, East Belgium does not have a problem providing care for its senior citizens? Does Belgium have a completely different idea of the family than Germany?

Antonios Antoniadis: Of course, East Belgium is no island. The demographic change does not stop at national borders. Here, too, family structures are changing, and the number of elderly people is increasing. We try to make it possible for people to live a self-determined life in old age. In parallel with the nursing homes, we want to build alternative residential projects for senior citizens, expand home assistance, and provide relief to family caregivers. This way, the much-cherished wish of many senior citizens to stay in their own homes as long as possible can become reality.

What’s the current status of the Generationsbrücke Deutschland in Eastern Belgium?

Antonios Antoniadis: We are currently in the process of starting the pilot. We have received applications from so many children and young people that we had to draw lots about who could participate. This was the first feedback. Schools and nursing homes have already gotten in touch with me directly. And the Generationsbrücke, too, has received inquiries.

Generationsbrücke Deutschland in East Belgium: Residents of the St. Joseph Nursing Home during an afternoon with children from the Oberstadt Public Elementary School in Eupen.

What is your wish for the future?

Antonios Antoniadis: Of course, I would like to see the Generationsbrücke in all of Belgium. Once it has gained a foothold in Eastern Belgium, I will propose it to my colleagues in the rest of Belgium. In addition, I have also contacted the state government of Carinthia in Austria. I know one of the state ministers and the minister-president and have already put them in touch with Horst Krumbach. Maybe we will soon have a Generationsbrücke in Austria.

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