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Revolutionary 'Department of Future Aging' transformed a German town for its elders
Photo by Steven HWG on Unsplash

The world is getting older, and it's getting older quickly. In 2019, there were approximately 700 million people aged 65 and older. The UN predicts that the number will more than double by 2050. In the U.S., the Census Bureau estimates that retirement-age residents will outnumber children for the first time in the nation's history by the 2030s.

Clearly, helping the aging population live their later years with as much comfort and dignity as possible is a growing concern. And one German town is serving as an example of how to create a community where the elderly can thrive.

According to Reasons to be Cheerful, it all started in 1995 with a survey of 28,000 people aged 50+, exploring their wishes and expectations for their latter years. What the city of Arnsberg discovered was that aging residents wanted to participate in social life, actively contribute to society, continue learning, and—most importantly—not live alone.

Previously, Arnsberg had taken a "deficit-oriented" approach to its elderly population, focusing on what they couldn't do instead of what they had to offer.

Today, the city sees its aging residents totally differently, in large part thanks to its Department of Future Aging (DFA). That's right. In 2004, the town created an entire (albeit tiny) department dedicated to making sure elderly residents can live full, fulfilling lives as part of Arnsberg community.


"It is about strengthening resources and capacities, empowering, and enabling elderly people to stay or become active citizens," Martin Polenz, who leads the DFA, told Priti Salian.

Arnsberg is a city of approximately 74,000 residents, around 17,000 of whom are 65 and older.Wikimedia Commons

Polenz also told Channel News Asia that they don't want older residents living in the isolated fringes of the city. "We call it a city of good and long life, and we want to establish that for everybody," he said.

The DFA is tiny but mighty, leading more than 200 projects with a staff of two and a budget equivalent to approximately USD$24,000. They work closely with the Department of Citizens Involvement and the Department of Planning and Building to make sure the needs and desires of the elderly are woven into both the social fabric and physical design of the city.

Here are some examples of what that looks like:

- Numbered benches every 200 meters in some markets and on the promenade along the River Ruhr for rest and for people experiencing dementia. "If someone is lost, they can call for assistance quoting the bench number," Polenz told Salian.

- Volunteers who travel with older people as bus companions on shopping days, allowing seniors to shop for themselves but providing assistance with heavy bags and a sense of security

- Housing complexes that are both affordable and accessible, allowing seniors to live independently for longer

- The Dementia Learning Lab, introduced in 2008 by the DFA, which explores and implements solutions for meeting the needs of people with dementia and their families

- A quarterly magazine, SICHT, printed by the city and run by seniors for seniors

- A senior citizens' advisory council, which new residents are put in touch with

- Intergenerational initiatives, such as Café Zeitlos ("Timeless Cafe"), which aims to provide an inclusive place for people with dementia and their caregivers to hang out with people of all ages and create art together

And that's just a sampling. The DFA serves to advise, direct, train, develop, network, and collaborate to raise funds for programs, and they've been remarkably successful at it.

Channel News Asia did a video feature on how Germany, and Arnsberg in particular, cares for its aging population:

The German Town That's Embracing Dementia | How Germany Gets Ageing Rightwww.youtube.com

The town has earned recognition worldwide for its approach.

"In Germany, most local administrations provide only information and counseling services to help older persons and persons with dementia find points of support in their city," Anne-Sophie Parent, Secretary General of the European Covenant on Demographic Change and 28-year veteran of working on aging population issues, told Silian.

"Arnsberg's co-production approach is innovative because the city involves older persons and persons with dementia as key actors in the solutions that are developed for them. It makes them feel heard, a key element for them to feel valued and included in the life of their city."

Parent also called Arnsberg's work "exemplary and replicable in other European cities with similar demographic profile and population size."

Even if individual programs won't work everywhere, seeing people in their twilight years as active agents in their own lives and communities is an approach all municipalities can take as they prepare for a growing aging population.

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