Brian Sloan: Shared spaces can help to end ‘age apartheid’

Brian Sloan, chief executive, Age Scotland.
Brian Sloan, chief executive, Age Scotland.
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Nursery rhymes, stories, and giggling aren’t what you might expect to hear when you step into a care home. But that’s the scenario at a growing number around the world.

The idea of combining residential homes with nurseries has already been embraced in Japan, the ­Netherlands and Canada, as well as England. Now, the first one of its kind in Scotland has been given planning ­permission. Fife Council hopes that the £10.6 million development will bring young and old together through a shared cafe and activity rooms.

Children and older residents can enjoy daily activities together such as exercising, reading, cooking and eating. Researchers have found that both groups benefit: older people have improved moods and memory, while it helps children’s self-confidence and language development.

It’s not the only innovative project bringing generations together. In Stranraer, work recently started on a dementia-friendly development which will also include accommodation for young people at risk of ­homelessness. Loreburn Housing Association developed the plans to help reduce social isolation and increase civic participation.

We often hear about the generational divide, with baby boomers blamed for pricing younger people out of the housing market, while saddling them with the growing costs of pensions.

Earlier this month, the Resolution Foundation put forward proposals for tax changes to promote “inter-generational fairness”. These include older workers paying National Insurance contributions, changes to inheritance tax, and giving every young person £10,000 when they turn 25.

At the same time, many older ­people speak about feeling intimidated by the young or isolated as their communities change.

‘Age apartheid’ is arguably becoming more common as we increasingly live, work and socialise with ­people of a similar age. We see more and more blocks of student housing going up in our cities, as well as suburban estates of three to four bedroom family homes. Older people who wish to downsize feel pushed into retirement villages or sheltered housing.

With increased labour market mobility, young people increasingly find themselves living long distances from their families. New parents, who once relied on the advice of ­older relatives, now struggle through on their own. We often think of loneliness and isolation affecting older people, but it can impact all ages. Research in the European Journal of Ageing found that loneliness was highest among the 15 to 24 and over-80s age groups. This can have a ­devastating impact, making us more vulnerable to a host of physical and mental health problems.

A study from Stanford ­University found that building relationships between young and old brings numerous benefits. When older adults contribute to the well-being of younger ones, they develop a sense of purpose and boost their own health. They help younger people develop emotional skills, critical thinking, and social interaction, which are key to success.

While parents are obviously an important influence on their children, the researchers found that there are considerable benefits to having other older adults in their lives.

The Scottish projects are great examples of efforts to bridge this divide and promote interaction between the generations. Although they are still at an early stage, the Scottish Government says that it is looking into more cross-generational activities as part of its social ­isolation strategy.

Age Scotland is calling for more investment in these types of initiative. They can be a way to tackle several issues at once: a lack of affordable homes and student debt, social isolation, and the need for more nurseries to meet the increased childcare commitment of 1140 free hours for three-to four-year-olds by 2020. The upcoming Planning Bill is the ideal opportunity to explore these ideas and promote more intergenerational developments.

One proposal that is worth considering is a national scheme to enable older people with spare rooms to rent them to younger people. Tenants can help with odd jobs and provide companionship in return for low rent. This has won the support of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who are backing a “national care accommodation exchange programme”.

A scheme in America, Nesterly, is already successfully matching “hosts” and “guests” for longer term stays. As well as helping young people pay off debts and find an affordable place to live, this builds lasting friendships between the housemates.

In the Netherlands, many retirement homes allow students to live in rent-free apartments in return for volunteering and acting as “good neighbours” to the older residents. One facility in Deventer includes a vibrant ground floor with restaurants, cafes and a museum open to the ­public.

Of course, we can’t turn back the clock to an era when people knew all their neighbours and lived close to their extended families. But these exciting new developments show the benefits of building bridges between generations.

We hope that Scotland will learn from the best examples around the world and help build a more cohesive society.

Brian Sloan, chief executive, Age Scotland.