Everyone’s talking about intergenerational living


The UK is experiencing its most severe housing crisis in modern history. A combination of factors including an increasing population, a housing supply that has not met demand for many years, and speculation in the housing market all mean more homelessness, more families in temporary accommodation, and more young people struggling to get on the housing ladder. With higher life expectancy, the population of older people is growing, and with a lack of attractive alternate options available, more people are staying put in their family homes for longer.

It is widely accepted that loneliness and isolation can lead to increased GP and hospital visits, further increasing the strain on public resources. A growing elderly population means increased welfare spending on pensions, a higher cost of NHS and social care, and a decline in the working population. New ideas that will tackle loneliness and isolation among older people, and hopefully keep them active for as long as possible, are paramount.

One approach that has the potential to address the needs of older people – and other need groups at the same time – is intergenerational housing. Intergenerational housing models are established and even flourishing in parts of Europe and the United States, yet are in their infancy in the UK. These models have the potential to help address some of our society’s greatest challenges.

Understanding the numbers: The UK Older Population

In 2016 the UK population was 65.6 million, and projected to continue growing to over 74 million by 2039. The number of people aged 60 and over is expected to pass the 20 million mark by 2030.  3.6 million people aged 65+ or 32% of them live alone of which the majority are women.  Growing numbers of elderly people will have an impact on the NHS and social care expenditure. According to an estimate made by the Department of Health in 2010, long-term health conditions, which increase with age, account for 70% of total health and social care spending. Despite the recent increases in the state pension age, it is expected that the pensioner population will continue to rise. In 2014 there were 3.2 people of working age for every person of pensionable age. This ‘dependency ratio’ is expected to fall to 2.7 by 2037.

With a third of older people now living alone, evidence also suggests that loneliness is a large and growing problem among older people, especially for those over 80. Loneliness and social isolation have a direct impact on mental health and well-being, increasing risk of premature death by a quarter and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, while deficiencies in social relationships are associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

Understanding Intergenerational Housing

In order to understand Intergenerational Housing, it helps to understanding the concept and practice of cohousing (or collaborative housing). One definition of cohousing is: “an intentional community as a living environment… where significant relationships with neighbours are the norm rather than the exception, where generations mix and everyone has a role, where people experiment with commitment to something beyond their individual interests.” Cohousing has become more popular in the UK since the late 1990s, though already growing in Europe since the 1970s.  Intergenerational housing has similar characteristics to cohousing. The key difference is that cohousing is usually owned and managed by residents, whereas models of intergenerational housing are usually initiated, owned and managed by not for profit organisations, social housing providers and public authorities. A significant focus of intergenerational housing is to find new solutions to issues of isolation, loneliness and other concerns for an aging population, whilst putting people of other ages and stages of life into the mix. These can be students, younger adults, families, or even specific need groups such as those fostering or adopting at risk children.

Examples of Intergenerational Housing

The Plaza de América Building in Alicante, Spain  provides an excellent example of Intergenerational living.  In 2003, the Municipal Project for Intergenerational Housing and Community Services worked to address the specific housing needs of low-income older persons and young people by providing 244 affordable, intergenerational housing units in central urban areas. Residents include low-income older persons over the age of 65 (78 per cent of residents) and low-income young people under the age of 35 (22 per cent of residents). Young people are involved on a voluntary basis in the communal organisation of everyday life in the buildings and neighbourhood, and in cultural and recreational activities, which take place in communal spaces. On the basis of a ‘good neighbour agreement’, each young person is in charge of taking care of four older people in the building, offering a few hours of their time each week to spend with the older residents. The project not only provides decent, accessible housing but also works to create a supportive, family-like environment and sense of belonging among residents, enabling older residents to maintain their independence and stay in their own homes as they age.

The Generations of Hope Communities(GHC) model operates in America. In their “intentional neighbouring” model of community living, everyone, including the most vulnerable, gives and receives care and support. An example of this model is Bridge Meadows (GHC) – a multigenerational, affordable housing community in Portland, that adopts and fosters children and young people. The community features nine homes for families (29 children total) that have agreed to adopt children and youth from the foster care system, and 27 adults over 55 who qualify for housing subsidies and agree to contribute 100 hours of service to the Bridge Meadows community. The community’s mission is to provide supportive programming for foster youth and meaningful engagement for older adults.

Older adults connect with youth, families, and other residents in a variety of ways. Some help other residents by providing rides to doctor appointments, teaching activity classes, or stocking the building’s library. Most are involved with the youth by tutoring after school, offering art lessons, or babysitting while parents work, run errands, or take a break. As the functionality of older adults’ changes, the activities in which they participate may also change. Parents and older residents are asked to complete a monthly log of their interactions with other residents.  The impacts of Bridge Meadows include housing stability, permanency for youth and families through adoption or legal guardianship, children achieving greater academic success and elders increasing social connection.

Another Model

A new project from Haringey Council aims to create an Intergenerational Supported Housing Pilot for young parents, their children and older adults, which will be based in a sheltered housing hub and cluster scheme managed by Homes for Haringey. The pilot seeks to improve health and wellbeing for both young parents and older adults through the provision of housing-related support and the development of intergenerational activities and mentoring relationships. Faced with lower demand for sheltered housing among older people, Haringey identified a prime opportunity to utilise sheltered housing voids, which are currently unlettable, whilst innovatively developing a much needed supported housing scheme for young parents (aged 18-25). Research has shown a definitive need for such support among young parents, some of whom are homeless, some of whom are vulnerable or have left care, and many of whom face loneliness and isolation.

Social enterprise United for All Ages (UfAA) and Millennium Care recently announced plans for a £12 million intergenerational development in Wigan with continuity of care for older people, a care home, dementia unit, a nursery, community hub and assisted living flats. Reflecting the recent growing interest in bringing childcare and car for the elderly together, UfAA has set a target of up to 500 intergenerational sites by 2023. Projects such as this, and the other examples cited above in Europe, the US, and UK have much to offer. However, Haringey’s Intergenerational Supporn s while simultaneously achieving much needed social support for both young and old segments of the population. This Haringey model is certainly one to watch.

You can read our research report on Intergenerational Housing here