by Amy Phariss

As one of the highest scoring countries in the world for many markers of living well, the experience of aging in France is an example of how the aging process and experience is affected by resources, infrastructure and a cultural emphasis of, well, joie de vie – roughly translated as a cheerful, joyful way of life. The French, it turns out, not only live longer than most in the world, with a life expectancy of 82.7 years, but they spend much of their later years pursuing their passions, enjoying family time and relaxing after years spent working and rearing children. Rather than the American penchant for second careers or working well past retirement age, the French retire earlier than their American counterparts and place a high priority on enjoying their second half. How do they manage yet another French paradox? 

Catherine Skura of Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, NC sheds some light on retirement and aging in France. As an expat living in the United States, Skura regularly visits her home country of France to spend time with her 92-year-old father who still lives at home in the village in which Skura grew up. OutreachNC’s Amy Phariss spoke with Skura about her observations of aging from both an American and French perspective, what life is like for her father and his compatriots and how she might explain how the French manage such high-quality retirements. 

This interview has been edited for length. 

Amy Phariss: Can you tell me about your father and his current living situation in France? 

Catherine Skura: I have a 92 year old dad. He is blind because of glaucoma. However, he is still living at home because my brother basically still lives there and is the guardian. In that sense, my dad is lucky because mentally – he’s just very clear, he can tell you what day and time it is. He has perfect conversations as long as he can hear what you are asking. 

I have another neighbor – same thing, he still lives at home as well. But again, no history of mental issues. No Alzheimer’s or dementia.

What we do nicely in France is that if people want to live at home, it is encouraged.  

If they are still physically able, they will have their meals delivered, and we have services where a person will come in and serve and heat/warm up the meals. My father does that. Someone comes Monday through Friday to help him eat. That is pretty common. A lot of people in the village where we live do that. They will come in and microwave the food and sit with the person while they eat. 

There is help from the government for this. It depends on the income of who lives in the house. It also depends on the state of the person, if the person is disabled. 

AP: In France, your tax rate is much higher than in America. What is the cultural attitude for taxpayers paying for services such as these? 

CS: I guess we’ve always paid a lot of taxes, so there isn’t much question about that. In general, we pay more taxes in Europe than we do in the US. It’s a little bit more socialist. We realize we pay for the people who can’t pay. Would we like to pay less taxes? Sure. But…some families would not be able to keep the elderly parent with them. In this case, the person would have to go to a home. If they are still healthy, they go to a retirement home where they can come and go. If they need more attention, they go to a place where it is ‘medicalized,’ which is what we call it. It’s not all free. The quality of the care depends on the income that you have. If you’re poor, you will end up in a place, but it’s not like you will have a nurse constantly checking on you. 

In Europe, we have done a lot to improve these conditions. The old hospices were very sad. 

Amy Phariss: What is the cultural attitude toward aging in France? Are people afraid of getting older in France? 

CS: Yeah, I think they prefer to stay and look as young as long as they can. There is a lot of vanity. A lot of people go through cosmetic surgery, I’m sure. Men and women. They do want to look good. Again, not everybody. More in the big cities. There is more competition. 

French people spend a lot of time tanning on the beaches. We all know it’s so unhealthy, but boy do they want the tan. That’s hard to change in France.

Amy Phariss: Is there an emphasis on physical health in France?

CS: Yes! Every ad about food, they will remind you that eating too much sugar and salt and not exercising will lead to obesity. I think it’s the law now. Yes, they do emphasize it. 

Because our healthcare is more socialized, French people don’t wait to go see a doctor. Here, people are afraid because they have to pay. In France, we just go.

Sometimes it’s too easy. People go for little boo-boos. But generally, French people don’t wait until it’s a huge problem. 

For elderly people, they have free vaccinations for the flu at least and probably some other things. You just call your doctor and the doctor or the pharmacist will administer the vaccine. Or the doctor will just drop by one afternoon and do this. 

We do have doctors that drop by your house – in the countryside. 

In cities, I’m not too sure. Our doctor still does this, especially for elderly people or people who are very sick and who shouldn’t be out transmitting this illness.  In general, with French healthcare, if you are sent home to recover, the nurse will come to you two or three times a day. We have services for that. If you have a bandage that needs to be changed for risk of infection, the nurse will come. 

AP: Sometimes, I hear from the elderly in the United States that they feel isolated or “invisible.”Are the elderly as secluded as they are in America?

CS: No, not as much. Often in France, the children will rely on grandma or grandpa for childcare. This is often the cheapest childcare. And the grandparents will want to do this. 

Our retirement age is ridiculously early. They want to increase it to 64 and we are having a revolution! It is 62 now. In some professions, it’s in your forties. It’s a ton of money because if you retire at 62 and live until 85, that is a lot of drawing of money from the government. 

AP: How is community manifested in France? Here it’s often church and volunteer work. What is it like in your father’s village? 

CS: Church in France is dying. They don’t even hold services every Sunday because sometimes nobody shows up. Church is no longer the center. The community will be more around a Christmas market, so now everybody and the surrounding villages will come. They will organize games and activities at the village level. Anybody can come if they buy a ticket. Once or twice a year, they will do a lunch or dinner. The villages will often give some cookies and a bottle of champagne on their birthday. There are things like this. 

There is one big difference. Here in the U.S., the elderly will do a lot of volunteer work. It’s not so big in France. Here the people are super giving. In France, we are a little bit more selfish. 

AP: Do the French associate retirement with decline? 

CS: No, no, no. Retire as soon as you can. They feel they can now enjoy themselves and travel. They do a lot of traveling. This is the generation when we still have the money to do this. The next generation that comes along, I don’t know how we will continue this. There aren’t enough people putting in and so many people taking out. But no, 

French people don’t associate retirement with decline. They associate it with leisure. They think about what they didn’t have time to do because they were at work. 

AP: Many Americans identify strongly with our careers or jobs. It is a large part of what makes up our identity, which sometimes makes retiring difficult for us. Would you say this is true in France?Do French people strongly identify with careers?

CS: I think if I look around and think, it’s probably more a job. They go do the job and go home when it’s time to leave the office. Most of the people I know, they view it more as a job. This may be more limited by the people I know. I’m trying to think of anyone who thinks of it as a career. I had one friend in college who was a teacher. For her it was a career. But she’s already retired, too. She’s been retired for years, actually. She is my age. She is going to be 60. She started to work, and she was in education. In some professions, the government lets you retire as long as you have enough time in service. 

AP: What benefits do you have from the government in retirement?

CS: You have a retirement check coming in. Some professions (airline pilots, teachers), have a special pension that they contribute to, and then they draw also on the pension. The pensions can be pretty good. That’s why some people are against reform. They are afraid to lose those pensions that benefit them. 

Retirement in France is more automatic. As soon as you work, you participate. 

AP: What would you say is the best part of aging in France?

CS: The early retirement. You can really live out your golden years. It’s a little easier in Europe. You still need cars, but we have (had) a good train system. You can hop on a train in Europe and go all over. The distances in France just aren’t the same. It’s a smaller scale. There is also public transportation. In our village, we have a bus system to the city. As elderly people, you often will benefit from half-priced fares for things like this. 

People in France love to travel in retirement, and the smaller scale of Europe and good transportation makes that easier. 

AP: What would you say is the hardest part of aging in France?

CS: If you are alone. If you don’t have children or if they live far away, for many that would be the hardest. Some children are not attentive. 

AP: What are the most expensive aspects of aging in France?

CS: For people who do not own their homes, I would say housing. However, home ownership is really encouraged in France. But for those who don’t, that would be the biggest. But healthcare, we have access to that. My mother spent a month in the hospital before her death and the bill was zero. She had dialysis and treatments. Nothing. 

Now, somebody did pay. But not her, not my brother, not her husband. 

AP: Finally, Catherine, if you could sum up retirement in France in three words or phrases, what would they be?

CS: (pauses and smiles) Active…enjoying life….and sharing stories. Many people of my father’s generation want to always remember how appreciative the French people were for the Americans coming during the war. They will always tell the younger people. They always want to commemorate the Americans. I know younger people who drive old Jeeps for this reason. We had songs written about this. If the ‘ricans didn’t come, we’d be German or Russian. 

One of the recipes that seems to appear in all French cookbooks and lifestyle guides is the ultra-simple, and thereby chic, French Yogurt Cake. French children and adults rave about the cake as an afternoon goûter, or snack. We hope you’ll enjoy it with a steaming espresso or, if you’re feeling virtuous, a cup of hot lemon water. 

French Yogurt Cake 

Ingredients 

  • ¾ cup plain whole-milk yogurt (Greek yogurt works well here)
  • 3 large eggs
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour 
  • 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup vegetable oil (we prefer extra virgin olive oil) 
  • *Optional additions include ¼ tsp. almond extract and/or finely-grated lemon zest 

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350℉ and grease a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick vegetable spray. In a mixing bowl, whisk yogurt, eggs, sugar and vanilla together (and almond extract or lemon zest if using). Combine flour, salt and baking powder and add to the wet ingredients until just combined. Using a spatula, fold the olive oil into the flour mixture until the batter is thick and glossy. 
  2. Pour the batter into the springform pan and bake for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 
  3. Allow the cake to cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan and then let cool completely before slicing. 
  4. To serve, dust with powdered sugar and top with macerated berries. 
  5. This cake can be made 3 days ahead and stored at room temperature in an airtight container.