Tackling social isolation requires intergenerational response

May 23, 2018   By Erica Belcher, Research Intern, NLGN

Whilst recent events have placed emphasis on generational differences– particularly between millennials and older baby-boomers – intergenerational Homeshare schemes are addressing a problem that cuts across the perceived generational divide, and are gaining increased traction among Local Authorities.

The lack of affordable housing (both owner occupied and privately rented) is having a worrying effect on community cohesion within local areas across the UK. Many public-sector workers are being priced out of areas in which they perform essential work. Many young people, like myself, face lengthy commutes to work in sectors confined to large cities with inordinately high rent.

Young and old alike are increasingly feeling socially isolated and lonely. When social relationships and community ties are lacking, one’s sense of place and belonging can quickly decline. As with many mental health illnesses, the effects of loneliness are not confined to an emotional experience alone. The strength of social relationships affects people’s physical as well as mental health. NHS research found that loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26 per cent. Social isolation is frequently associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease, due to the heightened propensity to adopt behaviour that is damaging to health, such as smoking and physical inactivity.

Homeshare schemes were first introduced to the UK in the 1980s, but until recently remained relatively niche. The programmes match an older person with room to spare (the householder) with another person (the homesharer) who needs low-cost accommodation, in return for ten hours per week of specified tasks, such as shopping, cooking and gardening. Participants pay monthly fees (ranging from £100-£200) to Homeshare organisations to support the careful matching process; these fees are normally lower than the cost of other housing support options. Of those involved, 58 per cent of householders and 40 per cent of homesharers approach the scheme for companionship.

The Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales and the Big Lottery Fund jointly invested £2m to support eight pilot sites in England and Scotland over three years to test and develop schemes which support Homesharing. An evaluation of the schemes impact was published last week. HomeshareUK, alongside other partner organisations, are coordinating nation-wide efforts to grow and strengthen the sector. Though individual schemes sit under the HomeshareUK umbrella, each Homeshare project is set up to align with each area’s local priorities, such as housing provision for low-income individuals or providing companionship for those with dementia. Accordingly, each is afforded a large degree of flexibility in the way they structure their operations.

Leeds County Council is home to the first integrated Homeshare programme, established as part of the pilot scheme. Others look set to follow suit. Some councils are looking to adopt a partnership approach and become a ‘Homeshare friendly area’, convening interested parties and extending their assistive reach to triage and connect existing Homeshare projects.

Homeshare schemes may help mitigate more costly care in the long term, by allowing older people to remain independent in their own homes for longer. Yet, to secure Homeshare schemes’ continued growth, there needs to be Local Authority buy-in at both a strategic and operational level. For schemes (and the matches that Homeshare staff create) to succeed, a healthy pipeline of householders and homesharers is required. Ongoing communication between Homeshare staff and frontline housing and social care professionals to develop effective referral pathways could help achieve this.

No age cohort is a homogenous group, and rarely can solutions to public health issues be standardised. Intergenerational living offers one innovative response to key policy challenges around both public health and housing that’s routed in a relational approach. Rather than viewing age groups with pre-prescribed needs to be met, Homeshare schemes maintain focus on the unique requirements of each matching process, without losing sight of the essential need for companionship which we all share.

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