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The Germans curing loneliness with homes for young and old

May 23, 2023

Multigenerational housing projects — with young and old living under one roof — are becoming increasingly popular in Germany. Having a diversity of ages in one home can improve lives, especially as the population ages.

And elderly man and woman read a book to two young children
Multigenerational living arrangements can benefit young and old alikeImage: Ute Grabowsky/photothek/picture alliance

Breakfast together is part of the daily ritual. Those who can, come down to the bright common room on the first floor at 9 o'clock. Not all eleven members of the communal living group on Mendelstrasse, Berlin are always there. But most are. "Here I always have someone to talk to," says Heidemarie Mehlau. "We live together despite all our differences." And that'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.

Waltraud, 71, puts it more bluntly: "Living here is winning the lottery." She enjoyed the 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 like living in the village in some ways: "You help and take care of 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 anonymous city.

Project Initiative "Wohnen in Gemeinschaft e.V."
The communal living project is in an otherwise standard Berlin city blockImage: Volker Witting/DW

They have staked out a communal building in a large, modern new housing complex of 351 apartments: A small island in a large project. Each member maintains his or her own self-contained rental apartment, but the members co-finance the common room, with TV and kitchenette, where the morning breakfast ritual also takes place. It's 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 a multigenerational housing project had been 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 habitation is still the exception. Finally, at the beginning of 2014, Apel reached a cooperation agreement with the Berlin housing company "Gesobau."

The association members were able to move into the new building complex at the beginning of 2019. At the time, there were 13 committed members who had sought and found a new home in the community. Two association members have since passed away, said Apel, a retired nursing consultant who moved in at the time with her now late husband. "I didn't want to be lonely," the retiree states as her main motive.

Project Initiative "Wohnen in Gemeinschaft e.V."
Cornelia Apel initiated the innovative projectImage: Volker Witting/DW

A model for rapidly aging societies?

Multigenerational co-habitation has many advantages. The residents remain independent, but they get new contact opportunities in the community. The diversity of life experiences, education, hobbies, and professions among the residents is also stimulating for everyone.

Heidemarie Mehlau also experiences it that way. "There is always someone to talk to and exchange ideas with." Arguments are also part of it, but that usually only happens at the 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, later in life, it is more cost-effective than being housed in a nursing facility.

Ingrid Meyer-Riegel has been involved from the very beginning. The 86-year-old says she is no longer "afraid to be alone," and considers multigenerational living projects to be progressive: "Too many old people are lonely in a society with more and more singles and older people."

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

Numerous studies show that the feeling of loneliness increases with age. A survey conducted by the opinion research institute Forsa in 2021 came to the conclusion that one in five people over 75 feels lonely at times. People over 80 are at risk of social isolation.

Business Beyond: The global housing crisis

For Joachim Wirtz, it was therefore clear for a long time that he wanted to live in a shared housing project. It was the "lucky lottery ticket" for the 74-year-old, who told DW he could not imagine a life without his diverse community. He had lived in shared apartments on-and-off since his youth. For him, the exchange with the two youngest members of the community, who are 13 and 22 years old, is invigorating. That's when you get to talk about issues like climate protection. "No one is going to get me to leave," Wirtz said.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

This article was originally published in German.

Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.