Building connections: could intergenerational living solve loneliness?


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Loneliness affects mental and physical health – research shows it can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. As the number of people suffering from loneliness rises it puts a strain on health and social care resources. Could intergenerational living be the answer?

Human connection and relationships are important, adding value to people’s lives and helping to build a sense of self-worth.

Building communities and facilitating connections has become an important tool for those working in the built environment from regenerating high streets to co-working and it is becoming important for residential too.

Build to Rent (BTR) developers design communal space to encourage residents to get to know their neighbours. It not only increases the appeal it makes business sense as tenants are more likely to renew their tenancies if they know and socialise with other people in the building. People will stay and will have sense of wellbeing where they feel at home.

The UK’s population is ageing – with older people being the part of society most affected by loneliness – but accommodation for older people is still very much siloed into specific types dependent on physical or other health needs. And often limited to specific locations – London currently has only one private retirement village.

Well-designed retirement living includes communal facilities, services and community activities, all of which have a role in improving wellbeing, whether through social interaction or simply physical mobility around a person’s home. Such models can play a part in combating loneliness but they might not be attractive for everyone.

They assume that people of a certain age want to live in a certain way. However, empty nesters and downsizers might be looking for a more varied social life. Retirees might not want to live in the country away from family and what’s familiar spending their twilight years gardening. Some of this is solved by the increasing range of urban specialist housing and housing with care options for older people. However, even then there will be plenty who want to mix with different generations rather than living solely with their peers.

BTR, frequently located in urban areas and targeted at young professionals, has caught the attention of more people than just those looking for their first, post-university home.

"There is a growing number of older people who are choosing to move back into city and town centres to take advantage of the lifestyle benefits. This group are increasingly choosing to rent as they find the offering is improving,” says Suzanne Benson, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins.

That offer includes well designed, maintained and managed BTR schemes which often have a community aspect as a key part of the design.

One BTR concept which is attracting interest is the idea of actively targeting different generations. The Kohab, which is looking for development opportunities, has a model which offers good quality centrally located flats for older people and younger. Everyone has their own flat but the younger tenants pay a discounted rent in return for taking responsibility, organising and participating in activities and events with their older neighbours. They might, for example, help with using smartphones and iPads or run a group activity.

It’s an idea which has been trialled with success in the Netherlands with both generations benefitting from the accommodation, its location and the community it creates.

Such models offer a different opportunity for intergenerational living and can fill part of the space between traditional housing, hospitals and care homes for older people. As the care requirement of residents increases though, engineering a truly “age blind” intergenerational living development under a single roof might be problematic. If tenants require different levels of services and amenities then catering adequately for all could push up costs which making it less financially viable for individual developments.

The answer may be found in urban planning, focusing on bespoke facilities for older people as part of a broader community offering rather than on a scheme specific basis.

“The idea is that we could have something that is run by an operator which is focused on providing housing and services to older people whilst at the same time being wrapped into a community and place that offers a whole range of different things for people. This type of model could, in theory, be attractive to anyone,” says Kyle Holling, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins.

Under single ownership, this model has worked well for decades in places such as Bourneville Village in the West Midlands. The community model is to provide accommodation that caters for everyone from young families through to the twilight years with a range of amenities that serve all.

Alternatively, in urban environments where there is already a good level of facilities and services available locally, ensuring that the overarching planning framework is designed inclusively for different generations could be the answer.

"If the general urban landscape is designed for intergenerational living then there may not be a need for it to be designed into specific developments. Here the overall placemaking is important, thinking ahead to future community needs and not being reactive,” says Holling.

And those needs should include a design which encourages interaction in the same way as the emerging BTR offering but for all generations and on a bigger scale.

Ultimately for the built environment to be used as a means to help combat loneliness, it requires stakeholders to be thinking more broadly about generational needs and wants. High street regeneration is already moving in this direction, primarily out of necessity as high street retail struggles against online shopping. Future urban centres will need to include a greater mix and integration of uses and services.

But as the BTR example demonstrates the market might find its own way towards intergenerational living. Where they take advantage of a wider choice of tenure, different age groups are likely – based on the experience of providers of operational residential models of all kinds – to naturally come together creating new communities and helping to combat loneliness.

If demand from Generation X and Baby Boomers for alternative styles of living rises then the market will no doubt respond. Purpose-built student accommodation and BTR have evolved as sectors over the past 5-10 years from a niche offering to one attracting institutional investment.

“I think intergenerational living in the BTR context is a good thing to be talking about as we look to the next wave of development. Just at the moment the tenure does need to develop a bit further, it needs to find its own feet and take a lead from the market but it has real potential for diversification” concludes Benson.

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