Where generations meet
Family care and responsibility for aged people in Germany tend to be more compulsory than in the Netherlands. Support by neighbours and friends, on the other hand, is something that ageing people have to arrange themselves. There are quite a few independent older people that find it difficult to do so. They can be lonely or socially isolated, they struggle to spend the day alone and are unable to take up activities or make contact with others. How do they find help and support to improve the quality of life and make life acceptable?
When it comes to housing, welfare and care in Germany, we often come across two concepts: Mehrgenerationswohnen and Mehrgenerationenhäuser. They are usually regarded as two different names for one and the same concept, but this is not the case. The first refers to (multi generation) housing whereas the latter refers to (multi generation) community houses. These are a kind of local community centres that are open to everyone. That is to say, they offer a place where generations can meet. This is a new form of social welfare at a local level which has evolved in Germany. In this article we will concentrate on the Mehrgenerationenhäuser.
Meanwhile, there are over 500 Mehrgenerationenhäuser in Germany and they have spread all over the country. The community houses are situated in small villages, or districts in larger towns and cities. Everyone is welcome and both the young and the aged can meet each other, they can participate in joint activities and are able to get - or give - help and support. The underlying idea is that different generations help each other and try to look after one another. In this way, the community houses provide an alternative form of social welfare.
The essence of the Mehrgenerationhaus is that it functions as a meeting place. Every house has its Offene Treff (open meeting place), often a bistro or café where people can meet and make contact with others. This is the starting point for further activities. Mehrgenerationenhäuser are characterized by their visitors. Differences in age, origin, and cultural background are not important. Apart from elder care (nursing facilities, coping with dementia) and child care, the community houses offer a variety of creative and cognitive activities. For example for children, in which older people help out, but also activities for people in their forties. Support and care provisions are not limited to older people or people who need care. Informal carers (volunteers) can ask for advice and support, migrants can follow language courses. The Mehrgerationenhäuser work together with local, cultural and educational organisations and with churches, as well as with local businesses. They offer training courses which stimulate people to find employment. In this way, the houses are firmly embedded within the local community and form an integral part of it. Altogether, this makes them an attractive place for citizens to pay a visit.
Mehrgenrationenhäuser work with many volunteers and the houses have a lot to offer them. In general, most people are prepared to do something for others, they feel the need to be of use to their community but they often do not know how to go about it. The Mehrgenerationenhäuser actually offer a place where this is possible. Volunteers can do what they enjoy and/or think is necessary. An extra bonus is that they have an opportunity to meet other people; they help each other and can learn from others. This creates a sense of solidarity and people feel less lonely.
The importance of the Mehrgenerationenhäuser has been recognized by the Federal Government in Germany. Last year, Manuela Schwesig (Minister for families, older people, women and youth) opened the ‘Day of the Mehrgenerationenhäuser’ in Berlin. She pointed out the quality of local networks in which these houses play an important role. Removing the barriers between the different generations with respect to care, help and support has proved to be successful and it has led to new prospects how to approach this in the future.
As indicated above, an interesting aspect of the Mehrgenerationenhäuser is the combination of child care and elder care. Over the past fifty years, the existing welfare services in Germany have been professionalized, but they have become too expensive. Initially, the Mehrgenerationenhäuser were considered illegal as they pushed out traditional care services. Just as in the Netherlands, child care and elder care in Germany are regulated by the government. The German government, however, decided to adjust legislation in order to end the illegal character of the Mehrgenerationenhäuser. Politicians discovered that the concept of the houses could contribute to society in a major way. The Federal Government realized that actions speak louder than words and decided to pay an annual grant to all Mehrgenerationenhäuser. In addition, the houses receive funds from the European Social Fund and from local or federal state governments. The latter contributions can also be made in the form of personnel or infrastructure. Although the organisation works primarily on the basis of volunteers, the essential coordination is in the hands of professionals.
At the beginning of this year, a Dutch documentary paid attention to a Mehrgenerationenhaus in Salzgitter, a small town just under Braunschweig, some fifty kilometers from Hannover. This is one of the oldest houses in Germany and its initiator, Hildegard Schooß, is still largely involved. In March 2015, The Aedes-Actiz Kenniscentrum Wonen-Zorg (a Dutch knowledge centre for housing and care) organised a study day called ‘Expedition Begonia’, a journey to discover new concepts in combining housing and care. Hildegard Schooß presented a workshop in which she emphasized that a Mehrgenerationenhaus is not a form of combined housing. There is, however, a clear interest in living arrangements because older people should be enabled to live independently, even if they are confronted with illness and disabilities. A welfare provision such as the Mehrgenerationenhaus creates the necessary conditions for them to remain living at home.
In the documentary, as well as during Expedition Begonia, Hildegard Schooß explained the philosophy behind the concept. By uniting all generations under one roof, you fall back upon an old fashioned structure, that of the ‘grand family’. People are able to associate with others, they help out and care for one another and this gives them a sense of solidarity. The reason behind this choice is that professional care has become too expensive and, due to cuts in the care budget, there are not enough care workers available. What is more, it seems that society nowadays is in need of a different social structure in which generations are more connected with each other. Hildegard Schooß mentions three factors that make the houses successful:
The Mehrgenerationenhäuser are ‘open houses’; they are accessible to everyone who wants to make use of the services. This does not only comprise care for the elderly or daily activities, but also the possibility to meet others and look for company, as well as the opportunity to organize activities spontaneously.
The houses are not meant for one particular focus group, but everyone is welcome: youngsters, people who live nearby and older citizens.
Anyone can join in all activities. There are no separate activities for specific target groups, such as the older generation. An interesting example is the fact that older people help out with day care activities for children.
One of the benefits of this approach is that people tend to be less lonely. They can meet others in the Mehrgenerationenhaus, which is not only open during the week but in the weekends as well. The Salzgitter house also offers services such as a hairdresser, a laundry and a shop.
The Merhrgenerationenhäuser are in need of money and although they are eligible for grants from the governments, they do not want to be dependent on state subsidies. The fees for child care and elder care are compatible with regular rates. The shops bring in extra money and at the same time stimulate visitors to the houses to become active and productive. A breakthrough, away from institutionalised thinking, is needed.
Finally, the Mehrgenerationenhäuser provide a unique opportunity for the unemployed to gain experience. Troubled adolescents, such as the group of unemployed teenagers that need strict guidance, will also be recruited in order to help out in the kitchen and with other household tasks. They mingle with older people and are treated as equals. Allowances are made for youngsters who are less productive due to cognitive problems or mental handicaps.
The Mehrgenerationenhäuser could be an inviting prospect for other European countries. They are a perfect example of a welfare provision which promotes participation of the population. This is exactly why they could be important for the Dutch care system. Because of the decentralisation of care provisions to local councils and subsequent cuts in care budgets, many of the services have to be realised with lower budgets. This asks for a new, fresh approach by welfare organisations. The original idea behind the Dutch Social Support Act (WMO) was to stimulate people to participate and become more involved in the community. When the Act became effective, however, it was overshadowed by accompanying cuts in care budgets. But welfare is about the structure of communities, about participation, about being recognized and, in the end, about the quality of life of our citizens. Mehrgenerationenhäuser constitute a new working process that could actually contribute to this quality of life.