In Germany, retirees have found a novel way to avoid being alone

Who said being retired had to be boring?
Who said being retired had to be boring?
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Nearly 20 years ago, Dorothea Hoffmeister was chatting with friends in her yoga class about where they wanted to live in retirement. Hoffmeister, who was in her early 50s at the time, wasn’t married and didn’t have children. Living in Nuremberg in southern Germany, she felt her options were limited. She didn’t love the idea of living by herself and traditional retirement communities didn’t appeal to her. She wanted to be independent, but not alone. Her friends, who were widowed or divorced, agreed.

So the group decided to form a community where they could live in their own apartments, but easily get together for activities. They met once a month for six years until they could find an affordable city center apartment building they could take over for their project, which they called OLGA—“Oldies Leben Gemeinsam Aktiv” or “Active oldies living together.”

For Hoffmeister, living with female friends rather than family or in a more traditional retirement community has been an ideal way to spend her golden years. “One isn’t alone, there is someone to rely on when one is sick, or to go to the movies or exercise with,” said Hoffmeister, who is now 69. Even the women in the group who have children and grandchildren prefer to live at their own pace with other women, she said.

Germany’s population is Europe’s oldest, second only to Japan globally. But like Hoffmeister, today’s seniors are living vastly different lives than previous generations. They are more likely to be on their own, live longer after retirement, and spend those years in better shape. And that has led Germany’s seniors to find creative, new ways to avoid being alone, or end up in dreary traditional retirement housing.

More than half of Germans between the ages of 65 and 85 surveyed by Berlin housing company, Howoge, said they didn’t want to be called old people. The survey also found that 83% of them want to stay fit and not have to rely on others. At the same time more seniors are likely to be divorced, widowed, or never married—about 41% of Berlin’s seniors live alone, compared with 35% of those in other age groups.

That’s boosting demand for an entirely new type of senior housing: apartments that are affordable and accessible, but in active communities where residents can easily get together. And builders and city planners are scrambling to keep up.

Last year Germany’s family ministry kicked off a program called “gemeinschaftlich wohnen, selbstbestimmt leben” or “communal housing, independent living,” that provides financial support to 29 model senior community living projects around the country. The ministry realized that current housing didn’t meet the needs of Germany’s seniors, said a ministry spokesperson in an email. The apartments need to be accessible for older residents who may not be as mobile and designed to prevent “social isolation.”

Today only about 4% of Germany’s seniors live in a community situation, but that’s set to change as more projects like OLGA take off.

A number of new projects have popped up. In 2008, Berlin opened its doors to Europe’s first multi-generational house  for lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual residents, where 60% of the space is reserved for men over the age of 55. The house, complete with a cabaret corner, has inspired similar retirement homes in homes in Spain and the United Kingdom.

Howoge, the publicly owned housing company, is planning several new senior housing buildings in Berlin, including a building with 22 apartments and the latest technologies, such as a digital board where residents can exchange information with one another and real time energy monitoring. In Eschweiler, near the Dutch and Belgian border, private investors are transforming a former shopping mall into a high-end senior community building with five apartments, each with their own private courtyard and a communal space.

Before her grandmother passed away, Jacqueline Larsson remembers trying to help her find senior housing in Berlin. “The quality of the space was never very nice,” said Larsson, an architect. “The colors were always dark and circulation terrible. I thought, ‘I don’t want to be old.’”

Now her firm, larssonarchitekten, is in charge of designing the type of senior house she could imagine living in—a pilot project in the city’s northern limits from Gewobag, a 100-year-old publicly owned housing company in Berlin responsible for 58,000 flats in the city.

On a snowy January day, Larsson showed me around the construction site. Called Wohn!Aktiv-Haus, the project aims to deliver the type of housing that caters to the needs of modern German seniors.

Most of the building’s 150 apartments are tiny, about 29 square meters (312 square feet), which helps to keep the rent down to about €420 ($457) a month, and are adapted to senior needs with touches such as obstacle free showers with built in seats. The previous community space, located on the top floor, which Larsson feels made them too inaccessible, was converted to pricier apartments with private rooftop balconies.

Larsson instead focused on creating multiple, easy-to-access communal areas where residents could casually bump into each other. She transformed the ground floor into a welcoming gathering space, with an open, two-story foyer, cozier side room, a back porch overlooking a garden, and dining hall. Each of the seven floors has a communal living room with bookshelves. Common areas have a mix of ceiling and standing lamps, plenty of windows and soft bright colors to shape the atmosphere. An on-site concierge will be available to help organize activities when residents move in next month.

“I constantly get calls from all over Berlin about the project,” said Gabriele Mittag, spokesperson at Gewobag, which also runs 28 other senior homes in Berlin. “Berlin is the city of singles, and that also applies to older people.”

Renuka Rayasam is a  freelance writer based in Berlin. You can follow her @renurayasam.