By Bill Palmer

Fair Housing for Frome was born out of a meeting convened by Edventure in 2016 to discuss how young people could find affordable housing. Edventure is a school for social enterprise set up for young people with ideas who want to turn their skills into socially useful businesses, and I was invited because we regularly shared our house with Edventure students. Three of us at that meeting thought that the housing crisis was not limited to young people and set up a group to explore a range of ideas for tackling it in Frome, which evolved into Fair Housing for Frome.

Personally, I was fired up by the idea of house sharing and intergenerational living. There are literally millions of houses in the UK which have spare rooms – for example, because children have left home. Also, loneliness and isolation is a growing problem, particularly for exactly those people whose children have left and who have rooms to spare. Lastly, the growth of food banks and austerity means that there are growing number of families who are struggling to make ends meet and could do with extra income. Taking in lodgers seems to be a possible solution to all these problems. And in fact, until the 1980’s, having lodgers was almost normal.

But even more significant than the emotional and practical problems which lodging can solve, I feel that the idea of intergenerational households, if it could be encouraged, would heal a wound in society left by the death of the extended family. Older people have lost the place in society they used to have and, even amongst families who are caring and loving, are often placed in sheltered housing, care homes or nursing homes rather than staying within their extended family. Even before that time, many older people struggle to feel a valuable part of society because the things that they valued about themselves (being parents, their experience, their work, their attractiveness) are all fading.

I have also started an organisation called Elderventure to help older people come to terms with ageing and to re-discover their sense of value. The name purposely reflects Edventure because I have a vision of older and younger people linking up in many different ways, forming intergenerational communities where the older people are valued for their experience and feel part of the community and the younger people find affordable accommodation and have help with childcare, cooking and conflict resolution. In some ways this would join up the loose ends of society where the young and the old, both disrespected, find that they are useful to each other.

The inspiration for Elderventure came from the time I spent in China. I was invited to work in Beihang University in Beijing. When I went into the university park in the mornings to do my exercises, I found about a hundred other people doing the same, with an average age of around 80 years. Talking to them, I found they were the retired professors and lecturers who were kept on by the university, paid and housed for their experience. It was seen as a great resource and the younger executives felt supported and secured by their availability. Because the older people felt valued, they valued themselves and looked after themselves. So, in addition to solving issues of isolation and depression, they also were healthier and less of a burden on the health service.

Within Fair Housing for Frome, I am working towards this vision by promoting the idea of lodging and through starting a Homeshare scheme. Homeshare is a system where older people with spare rooms share their space with younger people in return for help around the house, shopping and company. The coordinators carefully choose a suitable person and monitor the relationship to avoid the possibility of the arrangement going wrong or being abused.

In researching the idea of Homeshare, I found that the major hurdle to the idea amongst the older people was fear. Fear of the stranger. Fear of the young. Fear of change. Amongst the younger people, I found that they saw the advantages, but wanted people their own age to live with. There are many homeshare schemes around the UK but even the busiest are quite small. My conclusion is that perhaps this idea is not quite right for society at the present time.

But maybe the idea of intergenerational communities could work. Instead of hiving off older people into care homes, maybe purpose-built sheltered housing could be built that also include accommodation for young single people and young families. This would enable older people to move into a community where they feel useful instead of being shunted off into the waiting rooms for death that many care homes have become.

Bill Palmer, 2019

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