French feminists rethink ‘golden years’ housing

2011-12-15 08:18

France – Therese Clerc might be 84, but the ardent feminist has won a 10-year battle to set up the dream house of her golden years: a self-managed group home with “other old gals” – and all financed by public funds.

“We’re militants,” proclaimed the octogenarian, still trim with her long silver hair neatly tied in a pony tail.

She and friends had no desire to be bored, or sidelined, in traditional, often costly, old age homes.

“We don’t want to be old ladies all sitting in front of a television,” she said. “I’m a night bird and late riser, so dinners at 6 pm – no thanks!”

But Clerc also said no to staying in her home. “Living alone can be dangerous as one ages and the solitude crushing,” she said.

Rethinking the future
The catalyst for rethinking the future was the “very difficult” death of her mother. “I didn’t want to put my own children through that,” she said. She wanted to “age joyously” with other women, and “remain intelligent and active”.

And with a dose of humour – the group calls themselves the Baba Yagas, a term for old witches in Slavic folklore known for eating children but also sought out for their wisdom.

Clerc’s vision was a collective home, managed solely by the women and founded on solidarity among the residents. The sixtysomethings would help the ninetysomethings.

If residents develop severe illness or Alzheimer’s disease, “we will keep those who are ill as long as we can”, she said. And if hospitalisation is required, “we will continue to accompany them. Since we’re about 20 women, we will go visit them in shifts, each taking a turn every 20 days.”

The idea of senior-specific co-housing isn’t new – gaining ground in Denmark, Germany and notably the US, where millions of baby-boomers are hitting the 60s.

The Baba Yagas
But the Baba Yagas, true to French social welfare values, pushed for public funds for their all-women, 25-apartment house, now under construction with the group scheduled to move in at the end of next year.

The building, for which they haven’t spent a cent, is located in the centre of Montreuil, a small eastern Paris suburb with a left-wing bent. Though traditionally working class, Montreuil’s juxtaposition with Paris has driven up housing prices as Bobos, the term for young, well-off, trendy French, move in.

But the town upholds the welfare state and remains “mixed”, economically and racially.

Critical support came first from a communist mayor and now his successor, Dominique Voynet of the Greens Party, whose office was a key donor for the building which in all will cost €3.9 million (R42 million).

The women residents, aged in the 60s to the 90s, will pay only €200 to €500 per month – a pittance compared with standard rents.

The building may reserve one apartment for a nurse or health aide to allow the weakest to remain, and will have four low-rent apartments reserved for young people – a move that helped attract public subsidies.

“If this model works, it will involve major savings for the city. It will cost far less than paying to keep elderly people at home or in retirement homes,” said Voynet. In the Paris region, a retirement home costs an average €2 000 – twice the average monthly pension of €1 000.

Though the Baba Yagas won, it was a long battle. They launched the push for subsidies in 1995, with little success. It took a national tragedy in 2003 before their project caught attention.

An extreme heat wave in Europe that summer hit France particularly hard, claiming 15 000 lives, most of them elderly living alone or without families and friends around at the height of summer vacation. The shocking toll forced France to put its family, social and national health networks under new scrutiny.

For sociologist Bernard Ennuyer, a specialist in geriatric issues, France – whose women have the second-longest life expectancy after Japan at 84.8 years, according to the national statistics institute – “has had a catastrophic view on ageing”.

Even its famous doyenne Jeanne Calment, held as the world’s oldest person when she died at 122 years in 1997, once said: “Even God must have forgotten me.”

The Baba Yagas have now inspired similar initiatives in Brest, Lyon and other French cities.

“The French are starting to take their old age in hand,” said Ennuyer.

The group has also compared notes with precursors in Germany – which has less of a welfare state than France – where similar senior women’s group homes have existed for years in Berlin, Hamburg and elsewhere.

Anne Goertz (80), who has lived eight years with 10 other women in a big house in Nuremberg, voiced her group’s view: “For us, it was important to remain autonomous as long as possible, notably without depending on our families – or the state.”

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