Multi-Generational Housing
Inspirational living: old and young under one roof

In the year 2030 Germany will be home to more than 22 million people above the age of 65.  Photo: designpics © 123RF
In the year 2030 Germany will be home to more than 22 million people above the age of 65. | Photo (detail): designpics © 123RF

Most of us crave regular social contact even when we get a bit older. Young families are no different, and when traditional family structures begin to disintegrate, there are a number of community-oriented alternatives that become increasingly attractive, including multigenerational living.

A major demographic shift is well and truly underway in Germany: in the year 2030 the country will be home to more than 22 million people above the age of 65. According to the Federal Statistical Office, that represents roughly 29 percent of the already shrinking German population. At the same time, the number of people under 20 years of age will drop by 17 percent to an estimated 12.9 million. There are profound changes behind these figures as well, and they will not only affect the labor force and business in general, but also the intergenerational living situation for both young and old. More people and organizations are therefore taking a closer look at how to prepare for this imminent dilemma.

You never walk alone

One central topic in this context is affordable living when we reach old age. Henning Scherf, former mayor of Bremen and author of many books including Gemeinsam statt einsam (Together instead of Alone), has long pursued new concepts of communal living, in particular for older people. In addition, the 74-year-old has demanded that construction on the countless new homes for the elderly be halted immediately.

He points out that there are still loads of vacancies at this point, and not just in Bremen. In his opinion, most people want to remain in their own house until the time comes that they are forced to find another solution. He continues, saying that most rental apartment buildings are not wheelchair friendly, don't have bathrooms suited for the elderly, or don't have elevators. On one of his many appointments Scherf is accompanied by the Münsterländische Volkszeitung, a newspaper, and tells them, “We have about 40 million houses and apartments in Germany. Of those, less than one percent is built to suit the needs of seniors.”

Senior shared housing: privacy and sociability

Increasing numbers of residential construction companies have recognized this very issue and are investing in retrofitting projects or new facilities as well as in alternative living concepts. In April 2013, the LBG, a state-sponsored building collective in Württemberg, opened its first senior shared living facility in the middle of Stuttgart, for example. It consists of separate apartments and spacious common spaces with living rooms, dining areas and kitchens. The tenants are between 60 and 81 years of age and can freely choose whether to enjoy the privacy of their own rooms or spend time chatting, cooking or socializing with their fellow flatmates. “It is not as easy to put a senior shared living situation together as it is to put a bunch of students together,” admits Josef Vogel from the LBG. Not only do the structural and locational requirements have to be in place, but the “chemistry” also has to be right among the tenants.

Living with your adopted family

The same applies to alternative living projects in which young and old people are all under one roof. Henning Scherf and his wife actually founded just such a living situation over 20 years ago. When their own children moved out of the house, the parents sought new types of common living arrangements. They bought a house with friends in downtown Bremen and since then, with the turnover of tenants, the age distribution is completely mixed. “We have breakfast together regularly and take turns footing the bill for it. Sometimes people have guests and they join us of course. We also go on holidays together with the kids and grandkids. It's become a bit of an adopted family here.”

That is how Scherf described his common living situation in an article for Publik, a newspaper edited by Verdi, a German union organization. The project team for social welfare at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam is well aware of the importance of regular social interaction and contact with people, regardless of the age group. In their study Gut Leben im (hohen) Alter (lit. living well in old age) the team focused on the elderly in an effort to “develop new lifestyles and support systems tailored for specific locations” and “combat isolation, solitude and separation.”

Intergenerational living

Henning Scherf is also a staunch supporter of multigenerational living. “Children are the absolute best therapy for older people. They stimulate us and mobilize strength within us that might otherwise remain dormant.” The children, whose grandparents often live too far away to spend any significant time with them, also profit from the intergenerational interactions. When young and old people live under one roof, the elderly folks instinctively take on the grandparental role. In turn, the younger ones help with the chores, shopping or installing a computer program.

Beyond the practical assistance, however, it is primarily the exciting exchanges between the different age groups that the tenants of multigenerational living situations find enriching. “We want a diverse tapestry of people with different professions and biographies, with loads of ideas, talents, skills and experiences,” is how the group Lebendige Nachbarschaft (lit. lively neighborhood) describes its planned project near Lüneburg. With traditional family structures disintegrating and the number of single households rising, the need for social interaction and a sense of security within a common living situation increases, for both the young and old alike.


Henning Scherf:
Grau ist bunt. Was im Alter möglich ist (lit. Gray is Colorful. The Possibilities of Old Age, Verlag Herder, 2006)