The number of intergenerational roommates in France dropped by a third in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, as elderly people worried about their health, and universities went online. But there's renewed interest, with older and younger people in cities seeking out companionship.
There is an ease between Jeanne, 21, and Brigitte, 91, that makes it seem as though they have known each other much longer than the three months they have been living together.
“I think Brigitte and I complement each other a lot,” says Jeanne, serving tea to Brigitte at the dining table in the living room in their shared Paris flat. “We are both drawn to other people. We are quite dynamic... We laugh a lot together.”
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Until Jeanne moved in, Brigitte, who is widowed, spent most of her days on her own in her one-bedroom flat.
She has trouble walking and does not go out very often. A housekeeper comes once a week, and Brigitte hosts her two sons and granddaughter for lunch on Sundays.
“I was thinking for a while about how to be less alone. I did not want to go to a retirement home. I thought I should find someone – a student, or someone like that,” she says, explaining how she came to contact Le Pari Solidaire after seeing a news item on television.
A decade of intergenerational living
Le Pari Solidaire pairs elderly people with an extra room with young people looking for a place to live in a city that is lacking in affordable student housing.
It currently has 90 intergenerational roommate pairs in the Paris area, matching seniors 60-years-old and up with students who rent a room in their homes.
The organisation was established in 2004, partly as a reaction to the high number of older people who died alone at home during the 2003 heat wave.
With millions of students coming to Paris each year looking for housing, the idea was to facilitate a win-win situation for everyone.
Pari Solidaire started Cohabilis – a network of organisations facilitating such arrangements, which today supports 1,600 intergenerational roommate pairs each year.
The network pushed for an official contract, which was included in the 2018 Elan housing law.
The programme offers two options: one where students pay a bit under market rent for a room in the senior’s home, and the other where they pay less, but with certain obligations to the person they are living with.
Not just cheap rent
Jeanne moved to Paris from Lyon to attend theatre school, pays around 300 euros a month to live in the bedroom in Brigitte’s flat.
“For sure in Paris, as a student my flat would be smaller than this room! And I would be on the top floor, under the eaves. So I’m lucky,” she says, looking out at the small balcony giving way to a wide view of eastern Paris.
She was drawn to the idea of living with an older person, beyond the cheap rent.
“What I wanted to do when I got to Paris was to be useful to someone. And since that wasn’t going to happen through my theatre studies, I needed to find a way to be useful in my daily life."
With a variable class schedule and a busy social life, Jeanne is not home consistently. She sleeps in the flat’s only bedroom and was worried about invading Brigitte’s space when she walked through the living room in the evenings.
Brigitte does not mind, and both say they have had to adapt to the other.
“You need to make concessions,” says Brigitte, who has noticed that Jeanne does not eat consistent meals, which worries her, much like a grandmother might worry about her grandchild.
She has learned to accept Jeanne’s habits.
“Change is good for me! You know, change is youth. A bit is good, it shakes up the monotony,” she says.
Living together, with Covid
Covid, of course, has been a concern, and organisations facilitating intergenerational living saw a drop in demand between 2019 and 2020, as older people worried about getting sick, and students moved back with their families to attend classes online.
But that has been slowly shifting, even as the pandemic continues.
Students went back to in-person classes in 2021 and were drawn to the idea of not living alone in the face of potential future lockdowns.
Seniors – and especially their families – started to reach out to ease the impact of isolation.
Brigitte says Covid lockdowns and other measures have not really affected her, as she rarely leaves her flat.
When Jeanne moved in, Covid was not an issue for her, even though she worries about getting infected.
“If you think about all of that, you stop living,” she says.
Jeanne, however, is very cautious. Vaccinated, she continues to test herself regularly because she interacts with a lot of people.
“It’s clear that if tomorrow I test positive, I can go back to my parents’ house,” she says. “We’ll take the necessary measures so that Brigitte is not impacted.”