It’s been 15 years in the making but the BabayagasHouse, a name taken from Slavic mythology meaning “witch”, has just been inaugurated in Montreuil, on the east side of Paris.
It’s a self-managed social housing project devised and run by a community of dynamic female senior citizens who want to keep their independence, but live communally.
“To live long is a good thing but to age well is better,” says 85 year old Thérèse Clerc who dreamt up the project back in 1999.
“Growing old is not an illness,” says the elegant, feisty Clerc. “We want to change the way people see old age,” and that means “learning to live differently.”
The building houses 25 self-contained flats. 21 are adapted for the elderly and four are reserved for students.
Residents pay an average of 420 euros for 35m2.
The five-storey building is in the heart of Montreuil, just a stones throw from metro, shops and cinema.
Being central was important. “The message is ‘you will go out, you have a right to be active’,” says Jean-Paul Blery from the town’s housing department.
Janine Popot moved into her 29m2 studio a few weeks ago and still hasn’t opened all the boxes. As one of ten children, she says she wanted to live alongside others but not in a conventional home.
“I wanted to avoid ending up in a retirement home at all costs. When you don’t have much money, a retirement home becomes a prison,” she explains.
Growing old well means keeping the grey matter going. So the house isn’t just a place to live. The ground floor is reserved for activities and will house a university for senior citizens.
Residents were selected partly in relation to what they could contribute to the “community” and the extent to which they shared the Babayaga philosophy.
Many, like Jannine, are active in the voluntary sector.
The project cost nearly 4 million euros and funding came from no less than eight different public sources, including Montreuil city council which is accustomed to investing in innovative projects.
It was a difficult, long road, “a forceps delivery,” says Clerc.
Not least because getting funding for a project run by an association was genuinely innovative.
“Local authorities aren’t used to working with associations,” says 62 year old resident Dominique Doré. “Associations in France can’t buy land. Cecile Duflot (the French housing minister) is trying to change this.”
The Babayagas have generated a lot of interest, both here in France and in Canada, but Doré denies they want to launch a franchise and prefers to be compared with the slow food movement.
“Slow ageing? Why not!” “We want to exchange ideas, take what’s best out there.”
And while some Babayagas say their house must remain women-only, Doré says the structure is bound to evolve.
“We have the recipe, we have the saucepan, now it’s up to us to make the soup,” she says.
Two similar projects are underway in Palaiseau and Bagneux, and other local authorities are interested in following Montreuil’s example.
After all, a quarter of France’s population (17 million) are currently over the age of 60. By 2050 it’ll be a third.
The French will have to find solutions for the care of this growing elderly population. Helping senior citizens to help each other, as the Babayagas are doing, looks like a good one.