With the number of over-65-year-olds set to double, and childcare more expensive than ever, ‘Multigenerational houses’ may be the answer.
In Pattensen, a small town of 13,000 just south of Hanover, pensioners play cards to the echoing tick-tock of a grandfather clock. It might be a melancholy scene – if it wasn’t for the squeals of delight coming through the open door from the nursery on the next floor.
The nursery and the sitting room are part of a Mehrgenerationenhaus, literally a “multigeneration house”, which is a kindergarten, a social centre for the elderly and somewhere young families can drop in for coffee and advice. In theory, the sitting room is reserved for the over-60s, but in the practice the door to the kids’ area rarely stays closed for long.
Pensioners volunteer to read books to the children once a week and run a “rent-a-granny” service to relieve exhausted parents. In return, teenagers offer to show elderly people how to use computers and mobile phones. Maria Mantei, 66, and her husband Lothar, 71, who is blind, joined the centre two years ago after the death of their daughter. “We had hit rock-bottom, but we didn’t want therapy, we just wanted to be among people again,” she said.
Every Monday morning, when people with dementia use the sitting room for games and singing, children join in without being prompted. “Kids are more at ease dealing with dementia patients than adults”, said Angela Schulz, one of the care workers leading the sessions, “so we find patients are much more relaxed here than anywhere else”.
Britain too may soon start to send its pensioners to nurseries or babies to nursing homes. Last week, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research urged Britain to adopt the Mehrgenerationenhaus approach to cope with an ageing population.
“Multigenerational houses are a key part of Germany’s ageing population plan”, said the report, Generation Strain. “In the years ahead, these approaches will not be a ‘nice to have’ but a necessity, as families will need an extra helping hand to cope with caring responsibilities and pressure grows to contain the rising public costs of health and social care.”
“With Sure Start, the last Labour government managed to come up with a widely popular and effective care centre programme”, IPPR’s senior research fellow, Clare McNeil, said. “The question we are asking is: could we bring care for young families and the elderly under one roof?” Labour’s policy review team, led by Jon Cruddas, is said to be interested in the German experiment with multigenerational living.
In Germany, multigenerational houses were established in Lower Saxony in 2003 by Ursula von der Leyen, then family minister of the region, now federal defence minister. When she was promoted to the government, she took her big idea with her: 500 centres across the country were founded and given €40,000 a year each.
Centres are only allowed to spend half of the annual budget on salaries in order to encourage the use of volunteers. “The idea is that the state only gives us the first push”, said Annette Köppel, the Pattensen centre’s chairperson. In Pattensen, additional funds are raised through charging a nominal fee for workshops and selling food in the canteen, as well as through local charities and sponsorship.
In Angela Merkel’s second term, the number of Mehrgenerationenhäuser was reduced to 450, and even though the current government’s coalition manifesto promises to expand the scheme, it has yet to clarify how it will support the initiative after the current contracts run out at the end of the year.
Critics say the popular programme is a fig leaf for the state’s retreat from the care sector, though the government says intergenerational centres were never intended as a replacement for proper social services, but as an attempt to recreate the kind of social networks that have withered away since it has become rare for generations of the same family to live in the same house or even in the same city.
For Köppel, the incentive for multigenerational houses is not just social but also financial. In Pattensen, efficiency savings are made by the different groups sharing the kitchen, the garden and the caretaker, a retired engineer who volunteered for the job.
But if the big idea behind Germany’s multigenerational houses is to see demographic change as an opportunity not as a crisis, one criticism is that they have not actually risen to the size of the challenge: a recent government report predicted that by 2060 every third German would be aged 65 or over.
The next logical step up from multigenerational socialising, Köppel said, would be intergenerational living – bringing nursing homes under the same roofs as nurseries.
Student-style housing blocks for pensioners are increasingly popular in Germany, and some of them, like the Amaryllis centre in Bonn, actively try to keep a balance of young families and the elderly. A recent report suggested co-habitation could reduce the cost of care for the over-50s by 30-50% per head. Yet until now such projects have been largely run as co-operatives, with no serious support from the state.
“Co-habitation projects could be the future for ageing countries in Europe,” said Andrea Töllner, who advises local governments on the creation of new housing projects. “But the key is to remind people they can always close their door if they want. They’re not going back to student flatshares but separate living units”.
The pensioners at Pattensen came to that realisation long ago. Between 2:30 and 5 every Thursday afternoon, the door to the sitting room remains shut so they can play cards in peace.
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