Fed up with living alone, Germany's elders get roommates
DRESDEN — Anita Schmidt loves her apartment balcony. It gives her a great view of this city. And it lets her keep an eye on her roommates. If they stay out too late, they know they might have to reckon with her.
"She sometimes asks us the next morning what we're doing out at that hour," says roommate Karl-Heinz Röttjer.
Mr. Röttjer is not exactly a greenhorn, living in a big city for the first time. Far from it. In fact, none of the five roommates who share this apartment is younger than 57. Ms. Schmidt's teasing about breaking curfew is a reassuring reminder that they are looking out for one another.
"We always check in on one another," says Röttjer, a divorced watchmaker.
The five have been living together in a renovated flat in this Communist-style building for more than a year. They've spurned the regimented, sometimes isolated, life of a nursing home for the shared living of their salad days.
Their successful experiment is being copied in more than 200 other homes across Germany. Experts expect that number to increase as the swelling ranks of elderly Germans decide where they want to spend the rest of their lives.
"There is a long time between the end of family and career, and really getting old," says Holger Stolarz, who wrote a series of studies on housing and aging for the German senior foundation KDA. "That is a big time period and there is a need to find alternative ways of living."
The primary options until now have been either alone at home, or in assisted-living facilities. But senior home costs are becoming prohibitively high, and the German government is less and less willing to pay the difference when pension plans don't cover the cost.
"There is the question whether we can continue to finance this in the future," says Hanno Schaefer, spokesman for the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth. "Flat-sharing by seniors is a way to house people in the way they'd like and ... it's also affordable."
Like many social movements in Europe, this trend has its roots in northern Europe. In Switzerland and Sweden, advocates and officials have begun phasing out nursing homes in favor of specified care facilities. The Netherlands, says Stolarz, boasts five times as many house-sharing projects as Germany.
"The cities and developers support it much better," he says. "There is also federal support in the form of an organization that offers advice."
Indeed, most European countries, which are struggling to cope with aging populations, have been slow to support such endeavors. But the emergence of arrangements like the one in Dresden suggest the idea is going mainstream.
The movement in Germany is still in its early stages. Many who are now in their 60s and 70s have never shared an apartment with anyone but their families, says Dorothea Nagel, a Dresden roommate who has become the group's unofficial spokesman.
"Many think they are too young for something, which is ridiculous, and many just don't think it's for them," says Ms. Nagel, who fields questions from curious seniors when presenting the idea at health fairs. "I just tell them to come over and see for themselves."
Last year, the roommates in Dresden had 47 visits, all neatly registered in a black leather-bound notebook. Most stay for coffee and cake. Some stay longer.
"When I came in, I saw the room available and said 'I'm moving in,' " says Schmidt, whose eyes twinkle in a face etched with wrinkles.
After her husband died suddenly three years ago, she decided to move out of their home. She visited the Dresden apartment with Susanne Reissmann, whom she has known for 60 years, and the two decided to move in together.
Rather than feeling the loneliness she had experienced in her former apartment, Ms. Reissmann immediately clicked with her new roommates. "We complete each other so well," she says.
The only man in the house, Röttjer, is around when IKEA furniture needs putting together, or pictures hung. The youngest, Sylvia Behrens, is the baker, and Irene Rostalski, who has lived there the longest, likes to cook and organize trips.
The group gets together at least once a week for dinner in the common kitchen and living room. Most of the time, they go on group outings together as well, touring the old towns of nearby cities or heading to the theater.
At night, they retire to their rooms - each outfitted with a small kitchen and bathroom - that line the common hallway.
"Everyone has peace and quiet in the evening," says Nagel. "But I know that if I need someone to talk to, there's always someone there. And that is so important for people our age."
Each pays between $350 and $500 rent to the real estate developer who shouldered the $55,000 it cost to renovate the eighth-floor apartment.
The high price tag on making homes and apartments compatible with the needs of older people is often the biggest hurdle in getting developers and architects to back such projects, says Sieglinde Wartenberg, a founder of the lobby organization Alt Werden in Gemeinschaft, or "Getting Old Together". For the past eight years, the Dresden group has matched up prospective roommates and found architects and developers to build the flats and homes to house them.
Since helping get the Dresden apartment off the ground in 2000, Mr. Wartenberg has spoken at national conferences about similar projects. Until now, governments at all levels have been slow to set aside money that could help fund apartment-sharing projects, something Wartenberg says is a missed opportunity.
"It's not a solution on its own, but I think many problems can be solved in the future in this way, like the isolation or the care [of the elderly]," he says.
When a roommate gets sick or injured, the others are quick to help out, says Wartenberg. Reissmann didn't have to worry about grocery shopping after falling and injuring her leg. Ms. Behrens, who is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, has found the energy and moral support in the Dresden flat that was missing in the apartment she shared before with other Parkinson patients.
"I told them about my condition and they said it was no problem," says Behrens quietly, her preferred volume. She pauses to look around her room in which photos of her daughter share space with books on the architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. "In a nursing home, you get old very quickly," she says. "Here, you feel young again."