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'Aging Boomer Seeks Roommate' - French Find Hip Alternatives To Nursing Homes

Whether it is to avoid the nursing home, loneliness or rising rents, co-housing is the new trend for a generation of baby-boomers staring at 60 and beyond.

The Golden Girls (TheArches)
The Golden Girls (TheArches)
Laure Belot

Joëlle remembers the exact moment when she first had the idea: "I was out in the sun at my friend Marie's when the telephone rang. My 80-year-old father had just fallen at home." It was mid-July 2008 and Joëlle would have to manage her father's hospitalization from 800 kilometers away -- and the doctors were quick to suggest placing him in a nursing home.

The initial emergency over, the two friends discussed the situation. "We agreed that we didn't want our children to have to go through the same thing," remembers Joëlle. "Marie then talked about her country house near Aix-en-Provence. "We both looked at each other and decided that living together was something to think about."

Four years later, that casual conversation had turned into a real project. Joëlle and Marie, now 52 and 54 respectively, got their husbands involved in the adventure, Léon, 57, and Jacques, 62, and then Cécile, 58, and Jean, 62. They all plan to move into the country house together. "In 5 or 10 years, when we are all retired," explains Joelle, "that gives us time to get prepared."

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.

There are many reasons why this idea is gaining ground: some seniors don't want to go to a nursing home while others can't cope with the solitude of living alone, or cannot afford to do so; and for other people, the focus is to shield their children from having to deal with the issue of nursing homes and such.

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."

More than 5000 people have registered on Colocation-adulte.fr since its creation in March 2009: a perfect example of this think-outside-the-box solution. The site's founder, Pierre Lelal says that of the 1,500 members who are currently active, most are women between 50 and 60-years-old.

There is similar excitement surrounding the newer website Coloc-senior.fr as well. "Without any publicity, 500 people have placed an advertisement in the last year," says its creator, Jean-Michel Thomas. Since January, even the student market specialist Appartager.com is offering a senior service with 500 offers currently online.

Old friendships, new dynamics

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.

"We receive requests from all over France from people who want to use our experience to set up their own projects' says President Jocya Almor. Even Abbeyfield, a UK-based NGO with 50 years of experience in house-shares for the elderly both in the UK and in 14 other countries, is thinking of setting up shop in France. "New residents in our houses have a trial period of a month to see if they integrate well," explains David Coe, International Director.

Choosing your housemates is never simple, as 70-something Christiane Baumelle has discovered. "Joint renting with friends is delicate, because old friendships were not chosen with this in mind," says this psycho-sociologist and author of a house share survival guide for the elderly. In 2007, she also created Cocon3s.com – a forum on house sharing. "A thousand people have come forward online," she says. "I spend my time putting them in touch with other people but, from experience, women are much more indecisive about making the leap than men."

Jean-Marie Jarnac has also taken the bull by the horns. After hearing house sharing talked about on the radio, this senior pushing 70 placed an announcement on Leboncoin.fr, another French small-adds website, advertising a rather tongue-in-cheek "conference at Banca", a cottage in the heart of the Pyrenees. Ten people replied to his message and agreed to take part in a role play. "Each of them had to select a little piece of paper with a verb: "do the shopping," "decorate", "resolve conflicts." They each had to imagine how to manage that activity in a house share."

It was on this occasion that Jean-Marie met Nicole, 72, and Hélène, 65. All three were separated from their respective partners. Nine months later, in January 2011, they moved together into a house in Lamarque-Pontacq, a little village between Lourdes, Tarbes and Pau in the southwest of France.

One year later, Jean-Marie cannot stop talking about their adventures: setting up a huge 200m2 herb and veggie garden, taking group gardening lessons and having their children (11 among the three of them) and grandchildren to stay… "It's brilliant," he says, "but we are well aware that's not always the case." The group is even looking for a second man to join them to balance things out a little, and they are now trying to convert others to their way of thinking. On April 8, they are organizing a "conference" at their house in Lamarque-Pontacq. It will be taking place between the house and the vegetable patch if you are interested…!

Read more from Le Monde in French

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