Slow German Economy Finds Bright Spot in Elder Care ; A Rapidly Aging Population Offers Entrepreneurs Opportunities in Everything from Home-Care Services to Residential Facilities

Article excerpt

Ralf Heinrich first realized his tour company was in trouble in the summer of 2002. Americans, who represented close to half his turnover, were staying home after Sept. 11, 2001, and his company's English-language historical tours of central Munich were sparsely attended.

So the German entrepreneur started thinking what services he could offer that would be more in demand. Since last month, instead of whisking camera-toting travelers to the Alps, he has provided home-care workers for Munich's increasing ranks of seniors.

"Before I started this," says Mr. Heinrich, "I had no idea about caring for the elderly, but I am good at managing a small business. I jumped in because it is very attractive from the perspective of growth potential.... There are seniors everywhere in ever- increasing numbers. One doesn't have to travel too far to find customers."

In catering to the elderly, Heinrich has joined a wave of new companies in a sector that is among the few growing in Germany's struggling economy. The numbers of retirement homes, home-care services, and hospitals serving the elderly in Germany have risen 20 percent since 1996, according to the country's national statistics office. During that same period, capacity in the country's senior- care facilities, including private as well as government, church, and charity operations, has grown by more than 46 percent.

Germany's combination of rising life expectancy and low birth rate means that by 2050, more than 1 in 10 Germans will be octogenarians or older, compared with 4 percent today, according to the central office. While the birth rate - currently at 1.38 children per woman - is higher than that of Italy and Spain, two other countries on a continent with aging populations, the demographic trend of a growing group of elderly has been developing in Germany since World War II.

"The trend in aging is to be seen elsewhere in Europe," says Holger Jenrich, editor in chief of Altenpflege, a trade journal devoted to senior care, but in Germany it's "especially dramatic." He adds, "The effects are already becoming apparent. We are in a situation where we need to build even more retirement homes and we need even more companies caring for the elderly."

But staffing could be an issue. Otherwise thin want-ad sections here are full of offers for retirement-home nurses, in-house care assistants, and even students to help elders with shopping.

Efforts to train workers for the industry are being stepped up. But more than 80 percent of those trained soon quit because of the strenuous work and the poor pay, says Mr. …