One would think that after decades in academia, Christa Olbrich would want to catch her breath in retirement. Instead she's happily leading English conversation classes, preparing meals for herself and others, helping children do their homework, and generally helping – and being helped by – her neighbors in one of Germany's pilot multigenerational housing experiments.
"Here you're well taken care of," Ms. Olbrich says, pausing while helping 11-year-old Dennis with a math project while his mother is at work. "You always have a person to talk to, especially if you have a problem or if you're sick."
Olbricht has her own apartment in a community called Living With Meaning, where she shares a garden and a roofed terrace with residents ages 1 to 77. She is helping Dennis as a way to thank his mother for cooking and shopping for her when Olbrich was ill. Dennis routinely takes Olbrich's old newspapers to the recycling bin.
Once a fringe phenomenon, multigenerational households have been popping up in Germany over the past few years. By design, they place older people side by side with young families in housing arrangements guided by a philosophy of voluntarily helping one another. The communities stand out in a country where young and old often live separately in different neighborhoods.
Increasingly, multigenerational living is seen as part of the solution to one of German society's greatest challenges: How should it care for its older citizens?
In Germany as well as most industrialized countries, birthrates have been falling and people are retiring earlier and living longer than ever before. Experts predict that, by 2050, Germans age 60 and over will constitute more than half of the population, up from 26.8 percent today. Worried about dwindling public funds, politicians are joining hands with advocates in calling for new thinking on aging policy, where retirees ages 50 and older would perform volunteer work rather than simply expect the government to care for them.
"It's become a huge movement, not just for specialists, but for society as a whole, because millions of young older people are suddenly wondering, how do we go on?" says Henning Scherf, a retired mayor of Bremen. In his new book "Gray Is Colorful," he recounts doing volunteer work while sharing a common living arrangement with five friends for the past 19 years.
Defying doomsday scenarios of a graying, dying society, Mr. Scherf calls on the "younger old" to volunteer, be it reading to first graders or taking care of grandchildren. "Why can't 60- to 80-year-olds take over tasks that give them a goal in life and, at the same time, take off some of the burden of younger generations?" he asks in his book.
Common housing, he says in an interview, is the ideal platform to do this. "That we should be allowed to grow older is a gift – from an improved health system, from better nutrition, from peacetime," he says.
More and more older people are interested in helping young families, according to Hannover-based Forum for Citizens Living Together, an advisory group that brings together those interested in multigenerational households, from municipal officials to architects to average citizens across Germany. The group has received 15,000 inquiries this year, up from 2,000 in 1999.
"Multigenerational households used to be for the alternative scene, for the idealistic, but now it's moving closer to the mainstream," says Gerda Helbig, the group's executive director. "Old people today don't want to go into nursing homes anymore."
These alternative housing arrangements cater to the growing number of "people aged 55 trying to find out how they can live the next 25 years of their lives," says Willi Wagner, who 14 cofounded the Living With Meaning project where Olbrich lives. "Their kids are gone, they're not working, and they ask themselves, 'How can I survive, how can I make myself useful?' "
Barbara Duffner, a speech therapist a few years away from retirement, has been dealing with some of those questions. Her home began to feel empty last year after her three grown children moved out, she says. At that point, Ms. Duffner realized two things: She didn't want to grow old alone, and she wanted to give younger people the "gifts" she had received as a child.
One of those gifts was the time she shared with her grandmother in the countryside near Dresden. Together, they explored the woods, sang songs, and read fairy tales. "My grandmother taught me so much I wouldn't have learned if I had grown up with my parents only," says Duffner from her modest house in the small town of Obertshausen near Frankfurt. "Those are things we have to pass along to the younger generation."
So Barbara and her husband, Wolfgang, created a nonprofit association, "Living Among Generations," which has been planning to build a multigenerational home within the next few years. "We want to offer our services, take a load off young parents, share our wisdom with young people, and when needs be, get the support of others," Duffner says. "Many people have a third of their lives before them. They need a task. Without a specific task, life has no meaning."
Common housing arrangements come in different sizes and formats from older homes to brand-new complexes and miniature neighborhoods with shops and doctors within walking distances. Most designs strive to recreate the village or big family atmosphere of years ago when wisdom and talent was passed from one generation to the next.
In Aachen, part of the town's planning policy is to convert existing homes into multigenerational ones. "It's a theme that's finally getting out there in people's minds. People talk about it. They are in every single city and village," says sociologist Albrecht Goeschel who, since retiring from the German Urban Institute in Berlin last year, has campaigned publicly for multigenerational households.
One reason has to do with economics. According to the Bertelsmann Foundation, one of Germany's largest private research institutions, Germany's graying population will require the doubling the number of nursing home personnel by 2050 and the addition of 800,000 nursing home beds, something Germany's welfare system can't afford.
"Given the demographics, new living arrangements are a central solution to a problem we can't solve anymore," says Ursula Kremer-Preiss of the German Help to Senior Citizens Association in Bonn. "We can't rely on professionals only anymore because we won't be able to pay for it anymore. We need new structures; we need to rely on mutual help and private initiatives."
Attitudes about retirement are slowly changing in the country, says Birgit Ottensmeier, who has led a campaign to promote alternative housing among elderly at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Gütersloh. "Older people used to take it for granted that their children would take care of them – but they can't anymore, or there won't be enough young people to do that – or that they would go in a nursing home," she says. "These were the accepted things. But thinking has changed. Now they want to decide over what to do with their own future."
Not only are older people benefiting from alternative housing, young families are as well. In Frankfurt, Annette Theeck, her husband, and five children now live in the home of their dreams. After years of searching, they moved into a common housing association named Living Differently, Living Together. "It was the first time people said, 'Come on in, we're happy that you have children,' " says Ms. Theeck, sipping coffee in the common kitchen with Hilde Walesch, a slim 77-year-old neighbor with silver hair.
Ms. Walesch, who teaches senior gymnastics in the building, lends a hand supervising the Theeck children. "Close the door please!" she says, authoritatively, yet gently, to one of the Theeck children.
Seeing her children learn to abide by older people's needs and rules pleases Theeck. "They learn respect," she says.