GUIPAVAS — In the Jacques Brel retirement home in Brittany’s town of Guipavas, Marcelle Plougoum looks at Jean-Noël Michel tenderly. They first met in a medical center for senior citizens, and have loved each other for three years in this modern residential community surrounded by gardens. “We stay together all the time,” Marcelle explains. “Being apart would drive us mad!”
The couple doesn’t sleep in the same bed, but can be together often thanks to a door connecting their rooms. They spend a lot of time in Marcelle’s room, tastefully decorated with photographs. But the one of his beloved Jean-Noël is carefully put away. Though the other residents know about their love affair, they do not dare flaunt it. “We don't show that we are involved, because people get jealous. We kiss only in the bedroom,” the old woman explains.
Relationships and sexuality remain taboo in retirement homes. After all, privacy is hard to come by in a place where the elderly need care and medical treatment daily.
So the French agency Elorn, which manages three retirement homes, has developed a special training seminar for caregivers to familiarize them with sexual and intimacy issues among the elderly. This initiative has been encouraged by French minister for the elderly Michèle Delaunay, and Elorn is also offering staff training in its two other retirement homes.
These sessions allow caregivers, residents and families to meet and talk. The first meeting on July 14 drew 400 people and gathered sexologists, university professors and psychologists to discuss the subject. Corinne, one of the caregivers at the Ker Laouena retirement home, finds it very useful. “It did me a lot of good. We felt a little bit uncomfortable seeing old people kissing. It used to be a bit shocking, but it’s not anymore.”
Elorn director Eric Seguin is one of the project organizers. “The medical staff should be aware that sexual desire remains present for people even up to age 80 or 90,” he explains.
Valérie Daniel, a nurse at Ker Laouna who was present during the first training session, says that the residents often feel embarrassed about their sexuality. “Some of them have had platonic love lives.”
Let’s talk sleeping arrangements
That bashfulness is why many residents don’t want to see drastic changes. Seguin says he would be willing to put two single mattresses together in the same room, giving couples the option to sleep either in double beds or in connecting rooms.
“It's always better to have larger rooms and connecting bedrooms,” resident Yvonne Bergot says cheerfully. She moved two years ago into Ker Louena on the seaside to be with her husband, who died in January.
Like Marcelle and Jean-Noël, the couple spent most of their time together, in either one of their two bedrooms. Not at night, though. “Sleep in the same bed? I never even thought of it,” Yvonne confides.
In the Jacques Brel residence, Marcelle and Jean-Noël don’t necessarily want to share a bed either, especially since they require different amounts of sleep. “The couples can also feel awkward regarding their children’s way of thinking,” says Seguin. “That's why one of the main purposes of the training is to help residents to stop feeling guilty.”
Seguin believes the training will continue to be necessary as time goes on, if only for the staff. Resident profiles will no doubt change as children of the 1960s and homosexual couples arrive, and though “these people won't be shy about their sentimental and sexual lives, the staff’s mentalities need to evolve,” he says.
Another issue is life expectancy. Though right now women represent 90% of the residents at the three homes, men are expected to be as numerous as women in the years to come. And that means more coupling.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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