Elderly co-housing in France an alternative to Going Solo in the United States?

While Americans may be increasingly living alone, Le Monde reports on another trend: co-housing among the elderly.

This unconventional but pragmatic solution is happening all over France – dozens of house-shares have already been created, and they are giving food for thought to many in their 60s, 70s and 80s…

According to Yankel Fijalkow, urban sociologist and author of “Sociologie du Logement” [Sociology of Housing], “House-sharing for the elderly is a sort of group response to the ambient individualism.” Fijalkow says. “It is part of the same phenomenon as co-housing – houses with shared facilities – in Northern Europe and the United States or housing cooperatives. Faced by the fragility of the family unit, a desire emerges to recreate a quasi-family.”

But Fijalkow adds: “Let’s not be idealistic. Accommodation is expensive, and this is mostly a commercial transaction. With the current changes in family models, we go from being part of a couple to living on our own or in a house-share. People are flexible and adapt when the housing market is prohibitively expensive.”…

This system is being adopted all over Europe. Colocation Seniors, an organization in the western French city of Nantes was inspired by a similar project in Belgium, and has already helped dozens of seniors set up house-shares in the last three years, offering continuing support even after the house-share has been organized.

It is hard to know from this article how big of a trend this really is.

It is interesting to hear Fijalkow talk about these two motivating factors: a desire to have a “quasi-family” and economic realities. Which of these are more important? Does this suggest that people with more economic resources would not choose co-housing? It is already a foregone conclusion in many places that most families are fragile and/or past the breaking point?

This also reminds of the end of Kate Bolick’s article “All the Single Ladies” from November 2011. Here is where Bolick ends her thoughts on current relationships between women and men – a tour of a sort of dormitory for single women in Amsterdam:

The Begijnhof is big—106 apartments in all—but even so, I nearly pedaled right past it on my rented bicycle, hidden as it is in plain sight: a walled enclosure in the middle of the city, set a meter lower than its surroundings. Throngs of tourists sped past toward the adjacent shopping district. In the wall is a heavy, rounded wood door. I pulled it open and walked through.

Inside was an enchanted garden: a modest courtyard surrounded by classic Dutch houses of all different widths and heights. Roses and hydrangea lined walkways and peeked through gates. The sounds of the city were indiscernible. As I climbed the narrow, twisting stairs to Ellen’s sun-filled garret, she leaned over the railing in welcome—white hair cut in a bob, smiling red-painted lips. A writer and producer of avant-garde radio programs, Ellen, 60, has a chic, minimal style that carries over into her little two-floor apartment, which can’t be more than 300 square feet. Neat and efficient in the way of a ship, the place has large windows overlooking the courtyard and rooftops below. To be there is like being held in a nest.

We drank tea and talked, and Ellen rolled her own cigarettes and smoked thoughtfully. She talked about how the Dutch don’t regard being single as peculiar in any way—people are as they are. She feels blessed to live at the Begijnhof and doesn’t ever want to leave. Save for one or two friends on the premises, socially she holds herself aloof; she has no interest in being ensnared by the gossip on which a few of the residents thrive—but she loves knowing that they’re there. Ellen has a partner, but since he’s not allowed to spend the night, they split time between her place and his nearby home. “If you want to live here, you have to adjust, and you have to be creative,” Ellen said. (When I asked her if starting a relationship was a difficult decision after so many years of pleasurable solitude, she looked at me meaningfully and said, “It wasn’t a choice—it was a certainty.”)

When an American woman gives you a tour of her house, she leads you through all the rooms. Instead, this expat showed me her favorite window views: from her desk, from her (single) bed, from her reading chair. As I perched for a moment in each spot, trying her life on for size, I thought about the years I’d spent struggling against the four walls of my apartment, and I wondered what my mother’s life would have been like had she lived and divorced my father. A room of one’s own, for each of us. A place where single women can live and thrive as themselves.

How modern societies reconcile aging and individualism will be very interesting to watch.

One thought on “Elderly co-housing in France an alternative to Going Solo in the United States?

  1. Pingback: Demographics suggest don’t invest in McMansions; invest in group homes | Legally Sociable

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