May 6, 2015
Across the ages
As well as the demographic challenges presented by our aging population, there is another social phenomenon which adds to the complexity. And that is the breakdown of intergenerational contact within communities. Because we organise our lives in such a compartmentalised way according to our age and stage, we tend to become isolated from those beyond our immediate sphere of interest. The Germans have been trying to reverse engineer this process with the concept of the multigenerational community house. Surprise, surprise – it works.
As I’ve grown older, and particularly since becoming a parent 16 years ago, I’ve been struck by the UK’s segregation of the generations. Though we no longer expect children to be seen, not heard, we do tend to keep them very separate from adults.
Now, it seems, the Germans have a thing or two to teach us about intergenerational living. They have created centres where older people and children mix, to the advantage of both. These multigenerational houses are, as the UK’s Institute for Public Policy (IPPR) says, “recreating some of the extended family ties that people just don’t have as much anymore”.
The mothers’ centre in Salzgitter provided the first German role model in 2006. The idea, pioneered by the then family minister was to bring together under one roof, groups that had previously operated in isolation from each other – childcare groups, youth centres, mothers’ clubs, advice centres and communities for older people.
These multi-tasking houses were designed to offer an alternative for older people, who often feel lonely, and for young families who need support but have no grandparents living nearby.
Here in the UK we are regularly presented with headlines warning us of our “epidemic of loneliness” or telling us that “loneliness is killing us”. Only recently an American report revealed that lonely older people are nearly twice as likely to die prematurely as those without feelings of isolation.
In Germany, the 2006 Salzgitter model was followed, in 2012, by second stage multi-generation houses, with funding for 450 centres. The financial support was part of the German government’s demography strategy, under which nearly all administrative districts have their own such houses.
Compare this with last year’s depressing report from the House of Lords which found that the UK was “woefully unprepared” for the social and economic challenges presented by its ageing population.
“Our society is in denial of the inevitability of ageing,” Baroness Sally Greengross, chief executive of the International Longevity Centre UK, said when the report was published. “We have put off difficult decisions for far too long”.
Germany’s example seems a good one to follow. Its public living rooms are regarded as important new concepts in a modern welfare state where conventional institutional help is combined with a more actively engaged society.
They provide more than this though. As Eckart von Hirschhausen, author, moderator and patron of the multi-generation house in Berlin’s Zehlendorf district, says: “People are rarely happy on their own. Which is why multi-generation houses are the model for the future: learning from one another, feeling needed, sharing joy. A real recipe for happiness!”
Here in the UK the IPPR has called for universal community centres in which activities for different age groups would take place separately but under one roof.
Clare McNeil, senior research fellow at the IPPR says that the idea shouldn’t be too costly (the German government subsidises each of its homes by about £33,000 a year) and could be achieved by bringing existing services together in Sure Start centres or community halls.
The whole thing seems eminently sensible, with many inbuilt mutual benefits. Generations mix, the elderly provide a helping hand with childcare services even as the children themselves enhance older people’s lives.
And they certainly do. Ten-year-old Annie Donaghy spoke at a fundraiser in York about her grandmother who developed Alzheimer’s at 58.
In front of an audience of 800 Annie described how her grandmother still looks the same, still dances to the radio, ice-skates backwards and lets her watch TV programmes no matter “how dreadful” they are.
Her description is a pithy exposition of how to regard someone with dementia – seeing the individual first, not just the condition, recognising what she can do, not what she can’t, and helping when necessary. In Annie’s words, “Nana forgets, so I remember.”
It’s a slogan of which any advertising agency would be proud and sums up what youngsters, with their fresh, unselfconscious, non-judgemental take on life have to offer adults, particularly elderly people and those with dementia.
There’s definitely a time and a place for children, but perhaps we should start mixing it a bit more, follow Germany’s lead and broaden our thinking about when and where that is. As Annie says, “Grown-ups don’t always understand the important stuff.”
This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on Pippa Kelly’s blog. Kelly writes extensively on care issues affecting older people. She tweets at @piponthecommons.