The population is ageing in Europe and France is no exception. Those 65 and over represent 16.3% of the French population, and the trend is quickening, which is posing some problems in terms of how to care for elderly people. So, how do we care for our elders? In-home care is preferable, but one must cope with solitude. Even if it’s still marginal, more and more young people are choosing to work or even to live with elderly people to break this isolation. It’s also a way of strengthening generational ties.

Reporting by Cecile Mathy.

Intergenerational co-habitation is the in vogue solution for fighting against loneliness among the elderly and taking on the problem of the housing crisis. A single person agrees to open his doors to a student. Company for one, savings for the other. It’s a model formula in the big French cities, even if the phenomenon is still somewhat marginal. In Lyon, Madeleine, who’s 92, will live henceforth with Louise, a communications student. Seventy years separate them.

-Since I’m over 90, my children wanted me to have someone. It’s going quite well. Since she stays for dinner in the evening with me, well, we talk. We talk about a lot of things. I learn many things, and I can also teach her things.

-For example, she doesn’t know what the Internet is, how to send a message. Yesterday, I explained to her how all that worked, so it’s rather strange because I’m explaining to her something that she’s never used, so it’s great to see that she’s still interested in it.

It’s been two years now since Madeleine has resorted to this solution.

-I lost my husband six years ago, so I’m beginning to get used to life like this, but it’s never been enjoyable. I had an elder sister who had a stroke two years ago, and it was her daughter who took her in, who takes complete care of her. I think that’s great. I thought I was going to be able to stay with my children, but I realized that it’s not easy to live with your children, and that I would prefer to stay at home and have someone with whom I have almost more ease in speaking to. I have children who live far away, one in Paris, the other in the south, and to come see me, it’s quite an operation. They think it’s too far, so I prefer to have someone at home, and with the young girl whom I have right now, it’s going very, very well. It’s as if she were my daughter. She came with her father, and I liked her. We liked each other, and there you have it.

Louise doesn’t pay rent. In exchange, she does small services for Madeleine, and above all she reassures her of her presence. For her, she’s a godsend.

It was already a question of savings, that’s clear, not having the rent. And so she… I eat here every evening and morning, and so she wants only that I buy for myself. And then, also, I don’t like to come home alone in the evenings, and I don’t know anyone in Lyon, so I was saying to myself that it would give me… someone to be there for me, too, even if it were an elderly person.

-For you, it’s still not too confining?

-No, I’m the one who feels like I’m disturbing. For example, if I go out in the evening, and then when it gets dark out, I’m going to say to myself: ‘Well, I’d better get back, you never know, if something happens, I’d hold it against myself and all.’ But once it was clear with Madeleine that when I said to her: ‘Tonight, I’m going out. I’ll be home late’, she knows. Even if I know that she’s not too happy about it. She worries a bit. She worries about me and she worries about her being all alone. She knows very well, she well understands that I’m 20, that I go out and so… She’s not trapped. She goes to basketball games, she goes… We went to the movies together once. I hadn’t gone to the movies for a long time. We were together, but still she does what she wants! When she wants…if she wants to leave early, she tells me straight out.

I didn’t know at all if I would like this or not, and I discovered that there was something with elderly people which worked. In short, things that you don’t really realize, but I find that there are a lot of things to share. They have had a life, a history, and so I find it interesting to share with her.

But not everyone is ready to make the jump to co-habitation. Allowing someone into one’s personal space is not always easy, even for a few hours. Cleaning personnel or care providers like Sabrina know something about it. At 29, she spends her time going from one home to another to do housework and to come to the aid of those requiring assistance.

-How are you?

-Oh, not too well.

-Is it your leg?

-Oh, it’s everything. It’s my back. It’s everything.

Sabrina has been in the profession for seven years. Twice a week, she goes to the home of an 86-year-old woman whom we will call Simone.

-She’s going to do the dishes, scrub the floor, clean behind the building, really everything. I’m used to her. It goes well now! On days when she can’t come, I don’t want another because she knows the routine. She knows where everything is, whereas otherwise, I would have to re-teach it all to someone else, so I’d prefer to just do it myself.

-Does it also provide you with company? Someone to be there?

-Oh, yes, that’s it, yes! She tells me what she’s doing. I tell her what I saw, all of that.

-It’s true that we have a bond with our clients. It’s true that the time passes quickly. Often, we play music. It’s a really enjoyable moment. When there’s that, the weariness goes away. It’s true that it’s an enjoyable moment, that. Once you gain each other’s trust, all goes well. You have to put yourself in their place, in fact, and not act as if you were in your own home. You’re not in own your home. It’s doing what they want, making yourself accessible to them, listening to them, making yourself accessible to them. It’s true that most of the time you’re the only person they see, so they have a lot of time alone, it’s true. It’s…the hardest thing, it’s being alone. That’s why I went into home care because we can take liberties with our time. We do as we like. If the person, if she has more of a need one day to talk, it’s not a problem. The housework can be done later. That’s really the most important thing.

Simone’s children don’t live far away, but they work. They call her every day, but the loneliness has grown over time, so much so that in her building, everything has changed. Almost all of her former neighbours have moved.

-Now, there are young people. Before, there were 50-year-olds…with that we managed a lot better! While now, the young people, they don’t pay attention.

-They don’t offer sometimes to bring you back something?

-They won’t even come to ring at your door to see if you’re okay, if you’re…no, no, no.

However, aware that she’s has an essential role, that she is sometimes the only link to the outside world, Sabrina tries to keep her distance.

-It’s true that, when people pass away, things like that, it’s true that…that it touches you because you get very attached to people. But, okay, death doesn’t frighten me. I knew what I was getting into as far as a profession. You know that death has a hunger. That’s life.

Among the other clients whom Sabrina takes care of are Juliette and Lucien, a couple in their seventies.

-Lucien, shall we go to the bedroom? Get you to bed, okay? Come on, come with me.

Lucien is half-way lying down on the dining room table. A sufferer of multiple strokes, he is borderline conscious. He makes non-stop trips to and from his home and the hospital.

-I always try to stimulate him, to make him forge ahead, to always take a little time to be with him, to try to communicate, even if it’s difficult, even if he doesn’t respond to me. I always keep contact with him by touching him with gentle movements. It’s true that…as a result, it works! We succeed at getting him to do things by going through this!

So here, in addition to the household chores, Sabrina comes in particular to help his wife.

-She really helps me, and sometimes we talk, which doesn’t spoil anything. Given the situation I live in with my husband, it gives me…a breath of fresh air because it’s been a burden…he’s been ill for 13 years.

-As for me, I..I’m not a member of the family. I’m a third party, so sometimes it’s easier to speak directly to me. There are some people who carry everything all alone, and she doesn’t want to be an additional burden for her children. So it’s true that it’s easier to confide in me.

In-home care is sometimes a precarious solution, especially with a difficult illness such as Alzheimer’s disease. And despite help from the APA, the individually-controlled benefits, having a dependent is difficult to handle on a daily basis, especially for close relatives and friends.

-We do what we can in the mornings. I fix his breakfast. I take care the meals and his look after his care. Each time, I’m very tired. I can no longer handle it, so justifiably, I’m now seriously thinking about putting him in a retirement home. As long as he’d be in an environment which would suit him and even my children. They think it’s no longer possible.

But retirement homes are expensive. Fifteen hundred euros on average per month, and the number of spots is limited. In most cases, it’s the last resort for families. So, with life spans continually increasing, personal services in one’s home have long days ahead of them.

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