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“We're a great team”

Birds of a feather flock together? This isn't true in the case of senior citizen Gila Fankhauser and student Daniel Schmitz. They're at totally different stages of their lives, and yet they recently started living together in a shared flat.

Text: Janine Radlingmayr, photo: Per Kasch

Sitting in the middle of her bright open-plan kitchen/living room, with yellow flowers on the windowsill and family photos on the shelf, Gila Fankhauser has a big smile on her face. “I really like having Daniel around,” she says. However, the young student who is busy slicing melons in the kitchen isn’t her son or grandson – he’s her roommate. They’ve been living together in a shared flat for a month now, having moved two weeks ago from Gila Fankhauser’s old flat to a new apartment in the Hunziker Areal in Zurich-Oerlikon. A third roommate – 49-year-old Reto – will be joining them in the next few days.

For Gila (66), having Daniel as a roommate is a god send, because she’s been suffering from rheumatism for ten years. With the pain intensifying as time goes by, and being increasingly restricted in her movements, she says: “Daniel helps me with the shopping, cleans the flat and opens the jam jar in the morning”. After visiting a few shared flats with people of around a similar age to himself, Daniel realised that it wasn’t what he wanted, but he didn’t want to continue living with his parents in Herrliberg either. “I think to become independent, you have to move out and take responsibility.” And so the 19-year-old applied to Pro Senectute in Canton Zurich. His sister had told him about the “Wohnen für Hilfe” (help instead of rent) initiative. While studying IT at the ETH, this programme would give Daniel the opportunity to live rent-free in an elderly person’s home in return for offering them some help.

Help instead of rent

Walking the dog, helping out around the house, gardening, helping with chores that have become difficult due to old age, or simply being there: The “Wohnen für Hilfe” programme run by Pro Senectute Kanton Zürich is very varied. It’s a mutually beneficial solution: while living space for students in Zurich is as scarce as it is expensive, many older people live in large apartments and houses and are lonely or need support. The programme offers housing in exchange for assistance. the student has to provide one hour of help per month and per square metre of accommodation.

But not every student who applies to Pro Senectute Kanton Zürich is offered a room. “We’re not looking for students who simply want to live cheaply or for free”, says Andrea Ziegler, “Wohnen für Hilfe” coordinator and experienced social worker. "We have to feel that they are really willing to engage with the person they’re living with." After all, this form of shared living isn’t everyone’s cup of tea . “It requires an openness that doesn’t necessarily have to do with age alone. It’s more about the individual personality and how willing a person is to share their living space and open up to others,” says Ziegler. How does the allocation work? “We look at the wishes, hobbies and interests of the senior citizens and students and compare them,” explains Ziegler.

We're both generous and considerate

It was the common interests that persuaded Gila to choose Daniel. She and Daniel are both curious, open and share a love of music. “I wanted a young student who was open to new ideas and happy to support me in everyday life, particularly with the cooking, which is a great passion of mine,” explains Gila, while her roommate lets the first few lunch guests into the apartment. Two years ago Gila Fankhauser starting offering a lunchtime meal service at her home, usually on a Friday. Without Daniel’s help shopping, preparing the food and lifting heavy saucepans, she would soon have had to stop. “By cooking lunch, I’m able to keep in touch with the outside world. In return for 20 francs, I provide a fine three-course home-cooked lunch, “says Gila, who is finding it increasingly difficult to leave the house due to her chronic polyarthritis. “Through cooking, I’m able to meet new people and sometimes make new friends. It’s good to talk and share opinions.” One of her guests today is 68-year-old Willi from the Greifensee area. “I live alone and can’t cook very well, so I regularly take advantage of lunchtime offers. Thanks to my GA travelcard, I’m happy to travel a few kilometres for good food with nice people.”  

Win-win situation

“Gila and I clicked right from the start,” says Daniel, who’s happy that he’s able to learn so much from her – and not just about cooking. Moving to the new flat brought them even closer together. “It was a real challenge and we really got to know each other,” says Daniel, who not only packed many of Gila’s boxes, but also ended up carrying many of them when the removal company proved inadequate. “Gila really gave them what for. She taught me that you’ve got to be tough. Ultimately, they gave us a reduction on the price.” Daniel likes this school of life approach. “Sharing a flat is a real win-win situation for us. We’re a great team”.

Gila’s three children like the idea of her living in a shared flat. At the start of the arrangement, the two families got together for a BBQ so everyone could get to know one another. “If I lived with people the same age as me, that would probably never have worked. Many people would find it too embarrassing,” says Daniel. His employment and rental contract with Gila is open-ended. “We’ll keep to our arrangement until one of us is inspired to try something new,” says Gila and smiles at her roommate. And, as if they’ve known each other for years, he smiles back in agreement.