Social Crises: housing, isolation and an ageing population

Aug 2, 2017 | BLOG

By: Eloise Peck, ILC-UK

Taking the idea of intergenerational living more seriously could help ease some of the problems currently facing the young and old in the UK.

The problems facing young and old alike

Housing in modern Britain has been summed up as “a crisis of affordability and provision”[i]. Add to this the demands of an ageing population and the resultant impact of loneliness and isolation on our wellbeing; we would do well to take a more considered approach to intergenerational living. The number of young people owning their own home is declining whereas the number of over 65′s owning a home is rising[ii].

The average age of a first-time buyer in the UK is now 30, and in London it is even higher at 32[iii].Nonetheless, in the past five years, house prices have risen by 31.07% – in the last year, house prices rose again by almost 5%[iv]. Although price growth has slowed in the last year, they still continue to rise. The current cost of renting is also high – 14.8% higher today than in January 2011.[v]

Our population is ageing; the old age dependency ratio in the UK has been increasing since 2007[vi], and a clear gap between young and old in terms of property ownership has emerged, with potential social costs in the future. Rising house prices and stagnating wages are making it more difficult for young people to afford housing, especially in the capital. On top of this, a significant decline in the overall numbers of houses being built since 1980 is exacerbating the problems with a lack of affordable housing to buy or rent. Housing is undoubtedly one of today’s most pressing issues with all major political parties pledging increased house building during this year’s general election.

Source: ONS

The number of 65-74 year olds living alone is increasing, and more than 2 million people over the age of 75 now live alone[vii]. Research by the Disabled Living Foundation found that a loss of independence was one of the main concerns for people as they grow older[viii]. Although people value their independence highly, those who live alone, especially those who are over 60, are more likely to be socially isolated[ix]. A recent survey carried out by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness found that almost three quarters of older people in the UK are lonely[x].

Almost half of older people report the television or pets as being their main source of company[xi]. For many of these people, social isolation plays a huge role, and has a detrimental effect on their well-being, mental and physical health. Recent research has even pointed to a 30% higher risk of premature mortality associated with social isolation, living alone and loneliness[xii]. Young people are also affected by loneliness and isolation – almost 9 in 10 young people aged between 18 and 34 say they have felt lonely at some point in their lives[xiii], showing that the loneliness epidemic is affecting people of all ages.Source: ONS and author’s calculations

What is being done and what needs to be tackled

Efforts to tackle social isolation have not been in vain. Social prescribing involves people being referred to non-medical, local community services, such as volunteering groups or befriending services aimed at improving both mental and physical health. In a review of social prescribing carried out by the BMJ, general improvements in feelings of loneliness and social isolation were reported. However, it is unclear if some of these schemes are reaching the most isolated older individuals[xiv]. There is also more room for intergenerational communication and activity. Without this, there is a worry that intergenerational tensions will deepen. A government report on the social attitudes of young people[xv] warns that feelings of resentment and perceptions of unfairness amongst disadvantaged young people could be heightened if intergenerational disparities in income and wealth increase over the next 10 years.

An intergenerational solution?

We are living longer, older people are becoming more likely to live alone, and the housing crisis means that young people are struggling to find affordable housing. Could intergenerational living provide a solution? The idea is far from outlandish and intergenerational housing schemes are currently being run in several countries. In the Netherlands, the US and more recently in France, intergenerational housing models exist, where students live alongside elderly residents in nursing homes. The students live free of rent, but commit to helping the residents or participating in activities with their neighbours for around 30 hours every month. In the UK and 13 other countries internationally, Homeshare joins primarilyolder people needing help to live independently with people looking for low cost accommodation and willing to assist and provide company for the homeowner. In 2016, the number of UK-based Homeshare schemes increased from 8 to 23. Correspondingly, the number of reported matches increased by 23% to 222 (although the figure is estimated to be higher)[xvi]. The concept of intergenerational living is not brand new and although there has been an increase in the uptake of intergenerational living arrangements, it is not happening on a large scale and the potential benefits to all generations could be emphasised more. The uptake of Homeshare amongst elderly men is low, following a trend of social isolation amongst older men reported previously by the ILCUK.[xvii] There is also currently no widespread commissioning of Homeshare by Health and Social Care Commissioners[xix].

Intergenerational living provides a way around some of the issues faced by an ageing population. Minimal rent or a contribution towards bills gives young people the opportunity to save money, a key factor particularly in London where students are not always guaranteed accommodation and the weekly price of student accommodation can surpass £250. In the case of Homeshare, it can also provide an additional income for older homeowners to supplement their pensions and receive the support necessary to be able to live independently. In Germany, Mehrgenerationenhausen involve all generations. Child care and care of the elderly are put under the same roof – pensioners read to and look after the children, and teenagers teach older people to use technology. The UK is beginning to show signs of following suit, as Nightingale House (a residential, nursing and dementia care home in South London) is set to welcome nursery children every day from September 2017 and the University of Bath trial a similar arrangement aired on Channel 4’s ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’. The value of social contact and new relationships should not be downplayed. A sense of interdependence between generations is particularly necessary as the population ages and the demand for care increases, but it could also help to combat loneliness and isolation and promote well-being amongst the old and young.

Intergenerational living models have not received a huge amount of attention. This could potentially be due to criticisms about impracticality or unsuitability on a large scale. Granted, it would be difficult to argue that intergenerational living arrangements are suited to all individuals, and it is not a catch-all solution to the current housing crisis. Nonetheless, there is the potential for different forms of intergenerational living to become more widespread in the UK. If we want to be able to support an ageing population that would like to be independent and socially connected for as long as possible, while reducing living costs for the young, then we need innovative and practical solutions. If we are serious about our desire for a more integrated ageing society, then a move towards intergenerational living and support would seem a useful step in the right direction.

Eloise Peck

Q-Step Intern, ILC-UK