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'Intergenerational' living: French programmes pair young with old

Rachel Holman, France 24 | Claire Garnett, 25 (right), moved to France from Cardiff, Wales, and now shares a home with Véronique Estival, 56 (left).

Intergenerational living - when senior citizens share their homes with young people - can offer a solution to two persistent social problems: caring for the elderly and affordable housing, according to a French study released this month.

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Former social worker Véronique Estival, 56, first began thinking about taking in a young person around four years ago, after seeing a news report on the intergenerational homesharing agency Pari Solidaire. The idea appealed to her, but she still lived with her daughter in the apartment they shared in the southeastern Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine.

More than a year later, Estival’s daughter moved out, and she found herself living alone and with a spare room. “The thought resurfaced that I didn’t want my apartment to be inhabited by just one person, especially in the Paris area where the housing market is tight,” she told FRANCE 24.

The idea took on a sudden sense of urgency late last year, when Estival was forced to take leave from her job in November due to health reasons. She was experiencing chronic loss of balance, which made it difficult for her to do simple chores like shopping for groceries.

“My entire family lives elsewhere in France, I’m the only one who lives in the Paris area ... I was alone,” she said. “With my health issues, I told myself it was getting complicated.”

Estival’s family harboured similar concerns. They wondered what would happen if she were one day unable to leave the apartment, and none of her neighbours noticed. She had friends, but they were busy with their own lives.

Estival contacted Pari Solidaire, which introduced her to Claire Garnett, a 25-year-old British woman. Garnett had recently moved to France from Cardiff, Wales, where she worked in the hotel industry. Unhappy with her job, she decided to leave everything behind to study French abroad.

Despite the language barrier and the 31-year age difference, the two women felt an immediate affinity for each other.

“My first impression of her was that she was someone who smiles a lot. For me, Claire is all smiles and fits of laughter,” Estival said.

A week after their first meeting, Garnett moved into Estival’s spare room on April 1. Under the terms of their homesharing agreement, Garnett pays a reduced rent of €240 per month, plus €10 for the WiFi they had installed after her arrival. Although Estival does not need the money, she said it helps make up some of the income she lost by being on sick leave. She and her family also find Garnett a reassuring presence in the apartment in the event of an emergency.

“It was like it was meant to be,” Garnett said.

Claire Garnett, 25, moved to France from Cardiff in Wales. She now shares a home with Véronique Estival, 56.
Claire Garnett, 25, moved to France from Cardiff in Wales. She now shares a home with Véronique Estival, 56.

‘Symbiosis’

As if to illustrate the point, a study released on May 5 by the Ellyx consulting firm for COSI (Cohabitation Solidaire Intergénérationelle) – which groups 28 different intergenerational homesharing organisations in France – found that living arrangements like Estival and Garnett’s are an effective solution to two persistent social problems: caring for the elderly and affordable housing.

There are two main types of intergenerational home-sharing in France. The first is when a senior rents a room in his or her home to a young person at below-market rate. Although the young person is not contractually bound to spend time with their senior, they are there as a watchful presence. The second is when a young person lives at a senior’s home for free in exchange for a prerequisite number of hours of help and companionship.

According to the Ellyx/COSI study, 61 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 30 living in an intergenerational household said they would not have had access to “traditional” housing otherwise, while more than half of senior citizens said that having a young person around allowed them to stave off moving into a retirement home.

“It’s like symbiosis in biology. There’s a reciprocal relationship between two entities,” Joachim Pasquet, director of COSI, told FRANCE 24.

The reality is that France’s population, as elsewhere in Europe, is steadily ageing. More than 15 million people (nearly a quarter of the population) are over the age of 60. This number is expected to grow by a quarter over the next decade to 20 million in 2030, according to the French Health Ministry.

An overwhelming majority of seniors in France continue to live at home well into old age. A report by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques or INSEE) from 2018 found that less than 2 percent of people between 65 and 74 lived in retirement homes. This number gradually increases with age to 21 percent of seniors over the age of 85.

Meanwhile, rents in cities across the country have inched upwards over the past decade, making it harder for students with limited resources to find housing. In Paris, the average cost of rent went up by 7 percent between 2008 and 2018 alone. Although local authorities reintroduced citywide rent controls earlier this year, access to affordable housing remains an issue.

Intergenerational homesharing allows seniors who find themselves in declining health to remain at home longer than they could otherwise while also providing affordable housing to young people.

This was the case for Nicolas Dupont*, 28, and Genevieve Lebon, an 87-year-old widow, who have lived together since last autumn. After four years living as a student in the French capital, Dupont struggled to find an apartment this year as he prepared to apply for a PhD programme in cardiovascular disease at a Paris university. Desperate to find housing, he went to City Hall, which referred him to the intergenerational homesharing agency Ensemble2générations.

Dupont said he was unnerved at first by the prospect of living with someone older. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to be comfortable,” he said. “But I’ve changed my mind. It’s good to live together.”

Lebon’s daughter, Christine, described the odd couple’s first meeting as “love at first sight”.

“When I call my mother, I ask her how her young fiancé is doing,” she laughed.

Dupont lives rent free in Lebon’s house in Antony, a small suburb south of Paris. After going to work during the day, he often returns home to find Lebon watching television. He said they usually eat dinner together, during which they’ll talk about her family, French culture and history, and the garden. At around midnight, the young man goes down to lock up the house. He also sleeps with his door open to make sure he hears any unusual sounds.

Having Dupont at the house has been a huge relief for Lebon’s family, who wanted her to live at home for as long as possible. On at least one occasion his presence prevented a possible tragedy.

“My mother had been vaccinated against the flu, but she got sick anyway. She had a high fever and became delirious. Nicolas noticed, and called the woman who cares for her during the day. They then called an ambulance, which rushed her to the emergency room,” Christine Lebon said.

“I sincerely believe we have stumbled upon a charming hero.”

Social isolation

Another issue many seniors face while continuing to live at home is an excess of solitude. Children move away, friendships grow distant, marriages collapse, spouses die. More than 5.5 million people in France live in social isolation, at least 1.2 million of whom are over the age of 75, according to a 2017 report by France’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council.

Estival said that, aside from her health issues, she was also drawn to intergenerational homesharing out of a feeling of growing loneliness.

“(It’s) hard to bear, especially after your children leave home,” Estival said. “I thought I was ready, but it’s not the same. It weighs on you. I thought having someone at the house could help with that.”

There are many studies on the adverse effects living in isolation can have on a person’s physical and mental health. Estival said that just having Garnett at the house has helped her enormously as she deals with her health problems.

“I can see there’s a real difference,” she said.

Intergenerational living is not for everyone, however. Much of its success depends on a senior and a young person’s compatibility, as well as their expectations.

Maxime DuLac, a programme coordinator at Pari Solidaire, said that because so many people turn to intergenerational homesharing as a last resort, they don’t always understand what it’s all about.

“When you have a housing emergency … you don’t always pay attention to the ground rules,” Dulac said. “I get a lot of young people at the agency who don’t understand that it’s a real commitment. That it requires a minimum of openness and willingness.”

Still, the COSI/Ellyx study found that only 8 percent of respondents reported feeling disappointed by their experience.

Joëlle Henrotte, who pairs seniors and young people in the Paris area for Ensemble2générations, said that she can only remember two cases that haven’t worked out since she began her job nine years ago. Most of her clients have only positive things to say.

“We have students who live at the same person’s house throughout their studies. I had one student who stayed five or six years with the same person. He told me that he would not have been able attend university without this solution,” she said.

For their part, Estival and Garnett have already agreed to extend their homesharing agreement.

“I want to stay for however long it takes me to learn French, that’s the aim for the moment,” Garnett said, adding that Estival is an excellent teacher.

*Name has been changed

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