RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A recent U.N. study gave Germany high rating for the quality of life enjoyed by its senior citizens. Even so, many Germans spend their final days in Eastern European countries, where elder care is less expensive. That practice has some asking whether it's wrong to send loved ones far away to save money.
NPR's Berlin correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson filed this report from Poland.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: A handful of German and Polish residents at this nursing home in the mountain town of Slarska Poreba play a Scrabble-like game using blocks with large letters.
The seniors are tended to by Polish workers who offer a steady supply of smiles, hugs and encouragement.
LEONARDO TEGLS: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Leonardo Tegls says such personal attention makes this nursing home called Sun House special. The 87-year-old Dutch-born immigrant to Germany says he first learned about the Polish nursing home from a TV ad.
He says he had become too frail live on his own, but his German stepdaughter didn't have enough room to take him in. So Tegls moved 500 miles from Moenchengladbach across the border to Sun House, where he pays a third of what he would spend in Germany.
TEGLS: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He says he's disappointed more of the staff here doesn't speak German. But he loves his private room, with windows overlooking the vibrant fall foliage, even if it is too far away for his family and friends to visit.
Tegls is one of 10 German seniors at Sun House, a number that is expected to double in the coming months.
Helping Germans find elder care in Poland is Guenther Stobrawe. He and his Polish-born wife have advised more than a hundred families since opening their business in April.
GUENTHER STOBRAWE: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Stobawe takes a call from a German senior interested in moving to Sun House, which used to be a German hospital during World War I. He tells NPR it's not just the two-thirds lower costs, but better care that draws Germans to Poland.
STOBRAWE: (Through translator) Most are seeking an alternative to expensive and impersonal treatment in Germany. There are not enough nurses to provide adequate care to the elderly.
NELSON: That shortage is expected to increase as Germany's population ages. By 2050, almost a third of Germans will be 65 years or older.
Better care is why one German woman NPR interviewed says she pulled her mother out of a nursing home down the street and moved her to a Polish one 350 miles away. The German government cut off the 94-year-old woman's pension for leaving the country.
Her daughter, who asked that she and her mom not be identified, says she is planning to tell officials her mother has moved back to Germany to restore the monthly payments.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: But she says no matter what, she won't bring her back to a German nursing home. She says at the last one, workers fed her mother a steady dose of sedatives that kept her asleep most of the time. The daughter adds that's not the case in Poland, where her mother is happy and more active. Sun House's director is Helena Grab.
HELEN GRAB: (Through translator) Our treatment isn't different from what is offered in Germany. But what German relatives of the patients tell us is that it's much more warm-hearted. We treat them in a friendly and hands-on manner. We knock on the door before we go into their rooms. This approach appeals to our patients' loved ones.
NELSON: But many other Germans are uncomfortable with the exodus of their senior citizens. A March survey by pollster TNS Emnid found that more than four of every five Germans rejected the notion of their elderly spending their final years in Poland or nearby Slovakia, another country where seniors are moving to.
The influential German newspaper, Suedeutsche Zeitung, sarcastically called the trend gerontologic colonialism, and featured a cartoon of older Germans rolling eastward on walkers, in wheelchairs and in hospital beds.
KLAUS PAWLETKO: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Klaus Pawletko, who heads the Berlin-based association Friends of the Elderly, blames the transplant of German seniors into cheaper facilities abroad on relatives seeking to protect their inheritance. He says sending older Germans to a foreign country makes them feel cast off.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, in Slarska Poreba, Poland.
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