At a senior citizen home: Experiencing German culture with senior citizens

Charu Pancholi from India gives three hours of her time every Wednesday at the Alloheim Senior Citizens Home in Giessen. There she takes care of the elderly residents, who live at the centre and are rarely visited by their relatives.

by Sophie Nagel

Charu from India © Nagel/DAAD
Charu from India . © Nagel/DAAD

Downstairs in the basement, the pins are set up and it's time to bowl. The elderly residents of the nursing home compete against one another in a hilarious bowling contest. A few residents from the youth care unit participate, too. The 30-year-old Charu Pancholi and a representative of the German-Turkish Health Care Association set up the pins after every round. Most of the residents here are in wheelchairs. There's one woman who can only move one of her hands without assistance. Charu Pancholi doesn't feel awkward in their company anymore.

A hobby and language course in one

"When I took my German class before entering university in Giessen, I walked past this nursing home every day," she explains after one round of bowling. Back in India, she never did any volunteer work for lack of time. Where she comes from, the concept of volunteer work is not as prevalent as here in Germany. Charu always had to work to earn money and support her parents, who relied on her salary. But sometimes Charu gave free after-school lessons to fellow students.

Charu and warden Rebekka Bücher © Nagel/DAAD
Charu and warden Rebekka Bücher . © Nagel/DAAD

In Germany, Charu Pancholi wasn't allowed to work because of visa restrictions, but she still wanted to spend her free time in a meaningful way. In March 2012, she spoke with the director of the nursing home to apply for a job as a volunteer employee. As a volunteer, Charu receives no pay for her work. In the beginning, she worked at the nursing home twice a week, but now that she's studying for her master's degree in Transition Management, she only has time to spend one day a week doing volunteer work. The residents all know her well, which is crucial for a good working relationship. The most important thing is that she has fun doing her job and can pass this joy on to the residents.

The residents love Charu

When doing volunteer work like this, it is essential that one enjoys working with people. Special expertise is not necessary, however. "Generally, anyone who would like to become socially involved and is willing to give of their time for a longer period is welcome to apply," explains Rebekka Bücher. "It's enough to simply call us or write to us with your application, so that we can arrange an appointment to meet you."

"Less is more," explains nursing home director Rebekka Bücher. "People who are interested in helping should tell us right away if they would rather come just once a month. Many applicants realize too late that the work here is strenuous and then they don't come regularly anymore." That's too bad for everyone involved, because continuity is important. "We seldom find someone like Charu," says Rebekka Bücher. She has a very pleasant personality, laughs a lot and enjoys talking with the residents. Her easy-going character has a positive effect on them and has made her popular among her colleagues.

Resident with a dog © Nagel/DAAD
Resident with a dog . © Nagel/DAAD

Learning German on the job

After the bowling match, everyone meets at the café to drink coffee and converse. Even a dog comes to visit. There are currently three volunteer workers who bring their dogs to the senior citizens' home. It gives the residents the chance to have contact with animals. Charu Pancholi supervises a fixed group of residents, but there are also volunteers who look after certain individuals. In addition, the nursing home cooperates with a local high school, which arranges occasional visits by students or entire classes.

When the weather is good, Charu Pancholi likes to accompany one or two of the residents to the weekly market to go shopping. "I like it here," she says. "What's more, my volunteer job is good for learning German." No matter if she's helping with grocery shopping or just sharing a coffee with the residents, she's discovered that English doesn't get her very far in Giessen. It was a very good idea to take that language course.

My experience

I also do volunteer work for the Friends of the Waldorf Pedagogy Association in Giessen. I'm involved in the press and public relations activities for the kindergarten. I update their homepage, take photos and write articles about the events so that they can be reprinted in the daily newspaper. Through my work, I've gotten a good overview of the internal and external communication work at the kindergarten and can actively contribute to developing the association. At the last association meeting, I was elected cash auditor for the next two years.

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