In Pattensen, a small town of 13,000 just south of Hanover, Germany, pensioners play cards to the echoing tick-tock of a grandfather clock. It might be a melancholy scene — if it weren’t for the squeals of delight coming through the open door from the nursery on the next floor.

The nursery and the sitting room are part of a Mehrgenerationenhaus, literally a “multigeneration house,” which is a kindergarten, a social centre for the elderly and somewhere young families can drop in for coffee and advice. In theory, the sitting room is reserved for the over-60s, but in the practice the door to the childrens’ area rarely stays closed for long.

Pensioners volunteer to read books to the children once a week and run a “rent-a-granny” service to relieve exhausted parents. In return, teenagers offer to show elderly people how to use computers and mobile phones.

Seen as a necessity

“Multigenerational houses are a key part of Germany’s ageing population plan,” said the report, Generation Strain. “In the years ahead, these approaches will not be a ‘nice to have’ but a necessity, as families will need an extra helping hand to cope with caring responsibilities and pressure grows to contain the rising public costs of health and social care.” Multigenerational houses were established in Lower Saxony in 2003 by Ms. Ursula von der Leyen, then Family Minister of the region, now Federal Defence Minister.

When she was promoted to the government, she took her big idea with her: 500 centres across the country were founded and given €40,000 a year each.

Centres are only allowed to spend half of the annual budget on salaries in order to encourage the use of volunteers. “The idea is that the state only gives us the first push,” said Ms. Annette Koppel, the Pattensen centre’s chairperson. In Pattensen, additional funds are raised through charging a nominal fee for workshops and selling food in the canteen, as well as through local charities and sponsorship.

In Angela Merkel’s second term, the number of Mehrgenerationenhauser was reduced to 450, and even though the current government’s coalition manifesto promises to expand the scheme, it has yet to clarify how it will support the initiative after the current contracts run out at the end of the year.

‘A recreation of networks’

Critics say the popular programme is a fig leaf for the state’s retreat from the care sector, though the government says intergenerational centres were never intended as a replacement for proper social services, but as an attempt to recreate the kind of social networks that have withered away since it has become rare for generations of the same family to live in the same house or even in the same city.

But if the big idea behind Germany’s multigenerational houses is to see demographic change as an opportunity not as a crisis, one criticism is that they have not actually risen to the size of the challenge: a recent government report predicted that by 2060, every third German would be aged 65 or over.

The next logical step up from multigenerational socialising, Ms. Koppel said, would be intergenerational living — bringing nursing homes under the same roofs as nurseries. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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