Focus Online: You are campaigning for a different representation of ageing. He once said in an interview that the image of old age should be positive and radiant.

Henning Scherf: Yes, old age should be a time to look forward to.

How do you arrive at this point of view?

Scherf: That started early. I grew up with six siblings, my father was in prison, my mother was in the hospital with typhus, and we children went through the war with our grandmother. My positive view of old age is definitely linked to it. My grandmother had a huge desire to live, a huge heart for us children, she gave us everything she had. We accompany them until the end. I was 15 years old when she died. I still clearly remember the last few days and especially the last moment when she was on her deathbed. This moment marked me.

Say.

Scherf: Grandma was very weak, very sleepy, conscious only for a short time. We hugged her a lot. When she came to her senses for the last time, she said: “With you, that was the most beautiful thing in my life.” She then she died. I kept referring to Grandma's words. When my wife and I lived in shared apartments during our student days, when we had children of our own, when we “practiced” aging with our parents and in-laws, and also when I, as a social senator, traveled a lot to nursing homes and nursing homes seniors. Maybe, like I said, through my grandmother with this slightly different look. You can complain about things that no longer work when you get older, things you can't do anymore. Or you can rejoice in what is still possible.

When you say you want to look forward to old age, you're probably also thinking about your very special way of life, right? The “senior shared apartment” you live in…

Scherf: …but it's not really a shared apartment for seniors, we moved in when we were around 40…

In any case, the community housing project is quite prominent and has appeared in the media several times. What was the impetus for this?

Scherf: In fact, the thought “How do we want to age?” In 1988, my wife and I got together with ten friends and bought a beautiful house. We renovated it together, we renovated it and we moved. We still live here today and experience the benefits of growing old together. This also includes end-of-life care. Four of us are no longer alive. But some new ones have also been added over the years.

How many of you?

Scherf: Eight at the moment. All 80 years or older. But you know what? Our oldest daughter is moving here in 14 days. She is a doctor, now retired. We are touched that she does not want to leave her elderly parents alone. I find it hard to believe: our children are grown, or at least older.

In 1988, when he bought the house, he was in his early 40s. That's pretty early to start making concrete plans for aging. Most people seem to put the topic aside at this stage of life.

Scherf: We married early and became parents early. As a result, things may have played out a little differently for us. When the childless period came, we were still relatively young. When the children leave home, a new chapter begins. That can't have been all, you think. You don't think about things like that beforehand, you're too busy.

Is late parenthood a sufficient explanation for why people don't have to deal with aging for a long time? Age does not have the best image in our society. Isn't there a lot of repression at play?

Scherf: Sure, but in my opinion, fortunately, it is becoming less and less so. More and more older people consider themselves an active part of civil society. Justly. Many of us are full of life, we are curious, we want to learn, we care and we want to give. In sports clubs, voluntarily, in the neighborhood. Aging is an opportunity that should not be missed. But it is true that there are also people who prefer not to know anything about aging.

Because getting older is for cowards?

Scherf: That's not my way of approaching the subject. Getting older is not a test of courage or a struggle.

Quite?

Scherf: Getting older is a gift! I hope the people in 1968 who brought the cult of youth and sayings like “Don't trust anyone over 30” to the world see it that way today too. I think a lot of people do that. To be honest, for me it was more of a rebellion against old people that was fashionable at the time. You just wanted to be different. My wife and I also belonged to this generation. But like I said, we were already parents. We wanted to take our exams and earn money. That's why we spend this moment differently. We can see where it leads when aging is suppressed or even demonized.

What do you mean?

Scherf: No other country in the world does what we do here in Germany. Let's look at Holland, Finland, Austria. Everywhere, older people and those in need of care are cared for and supported in the neighborhood. Everywhere there are magical alternatives to growing old in a nursing home: a model that leads to a dead end, as we increasingly see! This cannot be stressed enough: we urgently need alternatives to hospital care for older people. For us it has become a market, a business model. And this model is increasingly questionable. Who has as their own contribution the 3,000 euros per month that is needed on average for a nursing position? Not to mention the large number of missing nurses.

And probably also about the quality of life in the nursing home?

Scherf: Naturally. She was just talking about a dead end. Coating – this also applies in many places. It is very important for us to age well that we remain mobile. And curious, as I said, interested. Look, I've just returned from a trip to Northern Ireland with my 21-year-old grandson. He was just great. The experience, the discovery, the questions through generations. For me, this type of travel is much more pleasant than waiting for the next meal on a Mediterranean steamer with 3,000 or 4,000 people. We spent ten days traveling from morning to afternoon, meeting people and inspiring each other. I do something like this with all my grandchildren, one by one. In October I want to go to New York with our 24-year-old son. I wouldn't do it alone anymore, after all, I'm not the youngest anymore.

You will be 86 years old.

Scherf: Yes, that is correct. But with my granddaughter by my side… I feel like I'm 60 years old. For the summer I am planning marsh excursions with our youngest grandchildren, who are five and six years old. They love the marshes. And they love doing things with grandpa and they also say it: these are not polite phrases, you can feel something like that. I also really want to walk together on the sand, with my bare feet, and experience this emotion of being together everywhere. There is nothing more beautiful!

How do you feel when you hear that in Germany there are many older people who feel terribly alone? They are dramatic figures. We read that between 9 and 22 percent suffer from being alone.

Scherf: Yes, this loneliness exists. Many people die in their homes because they feel alone and feel deported. This should not be overlooked.

Do you think loneliness could be one of the reasons why people die prematurely?

Scherf: Well, I notice in me that being in community revitalizes me and keeps me young.

But not everyone is this lucky.

Scherf: I maintain this: you have to prepare in time. For example, keeping friends. You can always take the first step. People don't come alone. You have to approach them. Why shouldn't I say and show that I'm interested? My experience has been that this sets a process in motion. It is not that only one side gives and the other consumes. This comes and goes. A wonderful dynamic that is worth continuing. Even in old age. Of course, there is no patented recipe or guarantee. But it's worth a try. I think: wherever you can open your mouth, you have to show older people that there may be another way. Get involved, I always say. Neighborhood, proximity. This can protect against loneliness.

Who do you say those things to and where?

Scherf: For example, in the different groups of seniors that I go to two or three times a week. Read aloud, discuss literature, or sing together. I am always very inspired when I see what is being created and something I can pass on. Even to people you wouldn't expect it from. I think, for example, of people with dementia. Sometimes it's like a door opens in the other person's head.

What exactly is happening?

Scherf: Recently, a lady who no longer knows if it is morning or afternoon and who keeps asking: “Do we know each other?” recited the entire Easter walk of Faust. The group's applause made her proud. Or another, 97 years old and with severe dementia. We sing the song “Come out, my heart, and seek joy.” I knew five verses and wanted to stop, but the woman continued singing. 15 verses in total. I didn't even know there were so many. Later I did some research and found a songbook from the 19th century. Apparently, the 97-year-old woman recorded something from his childhood and stored it in her head. And suddenly he comes to light, although the dementia head doesn't really allow it.

That sounds extraordinary.

Scherf: I could tell you countless stories like this. This is what happens when people get to work. If you don't sit, sit, sit until the nurse comes to go to the bathroom or something. Cooking together, eating, singing… peeling potatoes, cleaning vegetables, stuffing… There are so many things that can help older people wake up again. And suddenly they manage to do things that no one would have thought they could do. Simply because of the feeling: I am useful.

You once said your goal was to live at least 100 years old.

Scherf: And that remains the case. At the moment I think I can face the 14 years that remain until then.

So, are you still looking forward to getting older?

Scherf: Every day again.

Mr. Scherf, thank you for this conversation.

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