Opinion: We need better housing options for the elderly at Christmas

Those elderly and alone at this time of year need attractive alternative housing options.

It is greatly to the BBC news team’s credit that they continue to highlight the plight of those less fortunate as the majority of us look forward excitedly to Christmas. Following on from their piece on homelessness on Wednesday, on Thursday they highlighted the issue of loneliness and isolation among the elderly at this traditionally sociable time of the year.

Homelessness and isolation in old age are two of the most pressing issues resulting from our growing and ageing population. The fantastic work of caring charities helps to lessen the emotional strife that sufferers endure, but we really need to try to come up with ideas to prevent people arriving in these situations in the first place.

On watching the BBC piece on Thursday, my mind flashed back to a think tank report published earlier in the year. The rather crudely titled “Hoarding of Housing: The Intergenerational Crisis in the Housing Market.” drew attention to the increasing number of homes with 2 or more bedrooms lying empty, and the increasing likelihood that these homes would be owned by people in their 60s, 70s and beyond.

Watching the elderly ladies in the BBC news piece, it’s likely that some of them had two or more bedrooms lying empty in their houses. But I’m not inclined to deride them as hoarders as the Intergenerational Foundation do. Rather, these elderly women seem to me more likely to be stuck, resigned to living out their remaining years in solitude, and unaware of any means to escape this fate.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than downsize as the IF suggests, perhaps we should be offering retired people who live alone the opportunity to instead condense their housing. One or more people could sell up and move into the vacant spare rooms in another household. Hundreds of thousands of students share housing at the beginning of their adult lives for both financial and social reasons. Why should those nearing the end of their adult lives not have the option of doing the same in order to address the same economic and social concerns?

There are a multitude of models that could be offered. Younger, healthier retired people could consider selling up and moving to lodge with another older person. Perhaps their new home could be within a short distance of their young grandchildren or just in a new part of the country that they are keen to explore. The home-owner might be delighted for the rental income and the company that comes with it.

Should people require help around the house, they could take in a young lodger who might provide that help for a specified number of hours per week in return for free or cheap lodging. This model can also provide an ideal solution for students struggling with housing costs.

There are existing services in the UK which seek to match elderly people living alone with young people, but the multitude of different models that are offered by services in the US haven’t materialised in the UK. Research from the US suggests intergenerational home-sharing tackles loneliness, and helps most participants feel safer and happier in their home. So surely the idea of an inter- (and intra-) generational home-sharing service could help us far more than a think-tank serving up intergenerational resentment.

Charities and volunteers do fantastic work helping the homeless and lonely elderly at Christmas. But just think of the impact that could be made if thousands of volunteers around the country dedicated themselves to matching the elderly and isolated to suitable lodgers and house-mates and supporting these clients to greater happiness and prosperity.

Not every elderly person living alone would wish to use this service, but by not offering it we pass up an opportunity to bring joy to those who would jump at the chance, and we make it harder to provide shelter for all of our citizens.

To have a national home-share matching and support service is my festive wish for this year.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

*Ewan Hoyle will be a member of the Policy Committee from 1 January 2012.

* Ewan Hoyle is the founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform and member of the Scottish Liberal Democrat policy committee.

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6 Comments

  • I’d suggest that the problem is the underlying cultural assumption that one should live with a partner and no-one else (excepting children). Living with extended families or groups of friends would avoid people being left alone in the first place. But I think that’s something that requires cultural change rather than state intervention.

    Similarly, why are the existing services you mention insufficient and a national service necessary?

    But this is an important debate and a welcome article nonetheless.

  • I think with policy towards older people and housing there is a presumption towards “ageing in place” and “independent living”. This may be what the majority wish for, but should I get to a situation where I am old and living alone I would quite like to have a network of people who I can depend upon, whether they be people I live with or contacts I am able to make through those people or my greater sociability through greater disposable income or elevated mood.

    I’m not necessarily advocating state intervention, but state support might be necessary to take it national. It could very well be successful as a social enterprise, charity or customer-shareholder model.

    I’d think it would work better nationally as I know the local services that exist at the moment are struggling rather, perhaps because they only provide the young-person-moves-in-with-older-person model. Perhaps also because it is hard to promote and build a reputation on limited resources. A service with greater choice of individual sharers, locations and models of sharing might be a lot easier to market and get off the ground. A national service might also be able to co-ordinate things where a home-owner sells up and moves elsewhere to be closer to family, where small, local services might not.

  • …and I should clarify I’ll be on the Scottish Lib Dem policy committee, not the Federal one.

  • Oh dear oh dear. Lawyers would have a field day , not to mention elf& safety
    I can see so called lodgers claiming the right to the house should the elderly owner die. I can see the users of the free rooms requiring all sorts of mod cons. I can see them running up huge heating bills…….
    Nice dream, bringing people together

    Pity that the hapless home owner will be vulnerable to plunder

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