Germans are treating loneliness with homes for young and old

Breakfast is part of the daily ritual. Come to the bright common room on the first floor at 9 o’clock if you can. All eleven members of the communal life group in Mendelstrasse, Berlin are not always there. But most are. “Here I always have someone to talk to,” says Heidemarie Mehlau. “We live together despite all our differences.” And it’s a good feeling, says the 80-year-old. Especially when you need help or are sick, she says, it’s a good feeling to have a community behind you.

Having a diversity of young and old ages under one roof can improve lives, especially as the population ages.  (Volker Witting/DW)
Having a diversity of young and old ages under one roof can improve lives, especially as the population ages. (Volker Witting/DW)

Waltraud, 71, puts it more bluntly: “Living here is like winning the lottery.” She enjoyed a quiet life in a village in the countryside for a long time, but then wanted a change. Here, in the city, she says, the housing project is in some ways like living in the village: “You help and care for each other, exchange ideas about everyday things.”

The eleven members of the association range in age from 13 to 90, and they share a common concern: they are sick of living alone in an unknown city.

They have built a communal building in a large, modern new residential complex of 351 apartments: a small island in a large project. Each member maintains his or her own rented apartment, but members co-finance a common room with TV and kitchen, where the ritual of breakfast also takes place. It is a residential community with privacy.

Cornelia Apel is the initiator of the project. The 65-year-old had already committed to such a project more than ten years ago, but finding a developer willing to support the multigenerational housing project was very difficult. “I contacted all kinds of cooperatives and other developers. Often they didn’t even respond at first,” she told DW. In Germany, multigenerational living is still an exception. Finally, at the beginning of 2014, Apel reached a cooperation agreement with the Berlin housing company “Gesobau”.

Association members were able to move into the new building complex in early 2019. At that time, there were 13 committed members who searched for and found a new home in the community. Two union members have since passed away, said Appel, a retired nursing consultant who moved in with her now-deceased husband. “I don’t want to be alone,” the retiree explains as her main goal.

A model for rapidly aging societies?

Multigenerational cohabitation has many advantages. Residents remain independent, but they find new contact opportunities in the community. The diversity of life experiences, education, hobbies and occupations among residents is also stimulating for all.

Heidemarie Mehlau experiences the same. “There’s always someone to talk to and exchange ideas with.” Arguments are also a part of it, but it usually only happens in members’ meetings, when technical issues have to be discussed. Another advantage of multigenerational housing is that working parents can be relieved of the burden of childcare. And, in later life, it is more cost-effective than being placed in a nursing facility.

Ingrid Meyer-Riegel has been involved since the beginning. The 86-year-old says she is no longer “afraid to be alone,” and considers multigenerational life projects progressive: “Too many old people are single and lonely in a society with older people.”

And this trend applies worldwide, especially in developed industrial societies like Germany. The proportion of 65-year-olds measured against the total population is increasing everywhere: in Germany, the proportion of people over 65 is 21.8%, according to statistics agency Eurostat. In Italy, this ratio is the highest in the EU: 23.3%. But Japan is ahead; There, the proportion over 65 is already 29.1%.

Many studies show that feelings of loneliness increase with age. A 2021 survey by opinion research institute Forsa concluded that one in five people over the age of 75 feel lonely at times. People over 80 are at risk of social isolation.

For Joachim Wirtz, it was clear for a long time that he wanted to live in a shared housing project. It was a “lucky lottery ticket” for the 74-year-old, who told DW he couldn’t imagine life without his diverse community. He had been living in a shared apartment since his youth. For him, the exchange with the two youngest members of the community, who are 13 and 22, is encouraging. Then you get to talk about issues like climate protection. “Nobody’s going to make me quit,” Wirtz said.

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This article was originally published in German.

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