In his book "Restlaufzeit" (The time we have left), the German author Hajo Schumacher embarks on a search for a "cheerful and affordable" old age as he experiments with and rates different ways of life and accommodation arrangements. The good news is that it can be done. The bad news is that we have to organise it ourselves.
Hajo Schumacher, when you turned 50 two years ago you didn't buy a Harley or indulge in some type of extreme experience. Instead you published a book on growing old. Was that your way of dealing with it?
Exactly. By the way, I have nothing against Harley Davidsons or bungee jumps. When people fret about getting older, they do remarkable things – and not just the men either. Everything we had previously relied on – a decent rate of interest on our savings, property prices, a pension promised by the government or family ties – is called into question. The security of our parents' generation is ebbing away. My wife is a psychologist and she takes a very pragmatic approach to these situations. She says that if you are afraid and start to act foolishly, always preening in front of the mirror, trying to flatten your stomach and even out those wrinkles it will get you nowhere. The best way to address your fears is to face up to them.
"Fear of ageing is evidently a lot worse than ageing itself", you write. What fears did you free yourself from? Did other ones come to take their place
(laughs) Yes, you get rid of the old ones and then new ones come. I discovered three things, first: there is no ideal solution. Second: no-one will help you with it. Our Minister for Social Affairs, Andrea Nahles, will never knock on my door and say: Mr Schumacher, I can offer you an excellent customised package to meet all your needs. No, you have to take care of yourself, even if you believe in the welfare state as much as we Germans do. And third: if I wait until I turn 75 and say now I'd like to move into a shared flat and get to know great people and I need financing– it's too late then. All the successful projects I encountered had one thing in common: the people all spent a long time looking and had experienced failure. And all the people I can think of who planned their future in the right way, started very early.
When was that?
Everyone said, you're only 50; why are you thinking about growing old already? The answer is simple - because now I can set things in motion and make decisions. When I'm over 70, I may no longer be so enterprising and mobile. If I want to move into an apartment with other pensioners in my old age, I have to get used to those people with whom I will be spending so many years. The years between 50 and 60 are a formative time. I have realised that I don't exactly know what my needs are. When I think of my mother, I can see that loneliness is the worst outcome. It takes seven years off your life. If you smoke and drink in good company, your life expectancy will be higher than if you stay at home alone watching the television all day.
"Loneliness takes seven years off your life. If you smoke and drink in good company, your life expectancy will be higher than if you stay at home alone watching the television all day."
Women are more likely to live to an advanced age. Loneliness and old-age poverty are mainly experienced by women. Nonetheless, when reading your book I had the impression that you were slightly envious of women. Is there something they do better than men?
I am cautious about making sweeping statements like that, although in my experience coping with ageing is mainly a feminine experience. That goes for carers, the members of a family who look after the others and the responsible ministries. So if we are talking stereotypes, ageing tends to be fobbed off on women. Men have the bad – or good – fortune of living shorter lives. Women spend their entire life looking after their family and friends, so their experiences do equip them better for age-related issues.
Or are they more adaptable?
Yes, maybe also less egotistical. Almost all the projects I looked at were driven by women; they had the staying power and the practical common sense. Men tend to just flip out.
You wrote: "Equating quality of life with property is reducing existence to being the treasurer of your own life." However, growing old without a financial safety net creates all kinds of worries.
Of course there are old people living at subsistence level or even lower for whom every pair of shoes is a major expense. Statistically, on the other hand, at least in Germany, the current generation of pensioners is the most satisfied and prosperous generation of pensioners ever. I mean those who have enough and develop a curious type of old-age stinginess. They know three things: the outside temperature, their blood pressure and their account balance. The "safe as houses" mentality is widespread among Germans. Many people who take a new direction in retirement are changing their attitude to ownership and swapping their family home in the green belt for an age-appropriate two-room flat in the city. I see holding on to your property as a big problem. Most of the happy senior citizens I have met have lived fairly modestly. Do we want to count our money till the end of our days or is there still something we want to achieve? Is there an idea or project we want to pursue? There are so many ways of making a constructive contribution to society.
What other hurdles are there to dealing with old age?
Geriatric psychologists say you should get your own house in order. No-one has led the perfect life. We have all brought disappointment to others, we have all been hurt. The old chestnut is blaming everything on your parents. In my opinion you should stop making others responsible for your fate by the time you reach the age of 50. Or the perception of age, which is a toxic term. Our society has forgotten to give the old their rightful place and old people haven't managed to make this place for themselves. Pensioners in Germany often feel they are supplicants who receive money every month without doing anything for it. This is bad for their conscience and self-respect. Have you noticed that old people tend to wear camouflage colours? Liver-sausage coloured windcheaters and grey shoes – so they blend in with a concrete wall instead of being confident and saying, yes we're old but we still have a lot to contribute to society, experience for example.
"Ageing tends to be fobbed off on women. Men have the bad – or good – fortune of living shorter lives."
Life until retirement is all mapped out but after retirement we have to shape our own life, especially during the "third age" between 60 and 80. How do you plan to lead a cheerful and affordable life during this time?
As a self-employed person, the magical 65 milestone doesn't apply to me. Working is living for me. At the same time I am looking forward to leaving the Berlin winter behind for a few weeks and going off to the sun somewhere. I am doing things I would have once thought impossible. When we travel as a family, no matter how long for, we just take hand luggage. I can learn a great deal by doing that: modesty, organisation, transparency and independence from possessions. I greatly enjoy that. For me, growing old means shedding the dead wood. I've burned boxes of old memories and am all the better for having done so. I remember the important things and that's all I need.
What conclusion do you reach in your book?
I had acquired a striking image of ageing: as with mountain climbing you keep going up, reach the summit at 50 – creativity, income, happiness. Then it's downhill. The last 30 years are a growing avalanche storming down the mountain. I changed that picture: life is basically an upward trajectory. The higher you go – you reach 7000 metres at 70, 8000 metres at 80 – the harder it becomes. The air gets thinner and it is less hospitable. However, you can also say: Hey, I've made it this far! I'm tough and resilient. Anyone who has reached that height is entitled to take a rest at the side of the road. You are still making a big effort, perhaps even more than for a 20-year-old jumping up and down at 2000 metres. The higher you go, the closer you get to the sky. And is that not where we all want to end up?
Interview: Ruth Hafen / Pictures: Frank Johannes
Hajo Schumacher. Restlaufzeit. How to live a good, cheerful and affordable life in old age. Bastei Entertainment, 2014. Also available as an e-book.
Based on the motto "There is life after retirement" Hajo Schumacher examines various lifestyles and types of accommodation in his book – including the beguinage, luxury city dwellings and a care home in Poland. He works as a carer in Berlin, visits houses where several generations live together, apartments shared by senior citizens, housing cooperatives and more or less alternative living arrangements in Germany, Italy and Thailand. He evaluates every project according to cost, expense, risk, privacy and comfort and provides contact data for each initiative. He also demonstrates six ways of "detoxifying age" and provides general addresses and information in the appendix relating to work, commitments and leisure time for the third age in Germany. If you would like to learn more on the topic, you should consult the detailed bibliography.
Hajo Schumacher (born 1964) is a German journalist and author. After completing his studies in journalism, political science and psychology, he worked for the "Spiegel" magazine from 1990 to 2000, where his last position was Co-Manager of the Berlin office. From 2000 to 2002, he was Chief Editor of the Lifestyle magazine "Max" in Hamburg. Schumacher gained his doctorate in 2006 with a study on Angela Merkel's political leadership strategies. He currently works as a freelance journalist, author and moderator. Under the pseudonym Achim Achilles, he writes for Spiegel Online about amateur runners and has published books, including "Achilles’ Verse" and "Keine Gnade für die Wade: Neues vom Wunderläufer" (No mercy for the calves: The latest from the wonder runner). He lives with his family in Berlin.