Here’s a solution that could tackle two of the West’s most urgent problems: a young generation priced out of affordable housing, and the loneliness and isolation of a rapidly ageing population.
or so-called millennials, like Mikyoung Ahn, a large home is a seemingly unattainable dream. She could not imagine living in a spacious detached house on the leafy outskirts of Paris, just half an hour from the Arc de Triomphe. She definitely couldn’t imagine paying just 120 Euros (£100) a month to live there.
Mikyoung and her landlady, Monique, have been living together since October, after they were matched by an organisation called Ensemble2Generations. This organisation and others like it pair elderly people with students, in an arrangement called homeshare.
An aspiring architect, she wanted to live and study in one of the world’s cultural capitals. Instead of moving in with other young people, Mikyoung chose as a landlady and housemate a
78 year old widow with a passion for patchwork.
The concept is simple, yet it attempts to bridge an intergenerational divide that exists in many parts of the world. On one side are older people, who own properties that were purchased when house prices were comparatively cheap, but who may now need some help with daily activities like shopping and cleaning.
On the other side are young people, who cannot afford to rent a decent flat, but who may have some time to spare. Mikyoung helps Monique with a range of everyday tasks. She carries Monique’s shopping in the supermarket, washes up, and has even created an instruction sheet to help Monique understand all the buttons on her TV remote.
“It’s not a big deal,” she says. “It’s just life, you know.
If I lived here, I would have to clean the dishes or take the trash out. I feel really this is my home – this is our home.
“Every night when I come back, I prepare the dinner and I put on the music that I have learned today. For example, Champs-Élysées or something like that, and we sing together.”
Monique, who is a retired schoolteacher, is now an avid fan of Downton Abbey, after being introduced to the programme by Mikyoung.
Armelle and Blandine’s relationship is like a casual friendship. They relax together in the evenings and chat about their lives. While she was away from the house for a few days, Armelle even allowed Blandine to have a house party.
“Though her contract says that she’s not allowed to have friends over, I know that I can trust her,” says Armelle, laughing. “I even helped her organise it.”
The house has a large fireplace and a spectacular view over the lakes of Cergy. Unsurprisingly, Blandine is fond of these home comforts, and is not keen on moving into a cramped student flat for the next academic year.
Homeshare schemes are now active in 16 countries across the world. Since 1999, an organisation called Homeshare International has acted as a network for
“The benefits to the householder are they feel much safer at home because of having someone else in the house,” says Elizabeth Mills, the organisation’s director. “They’re happier, incidents of accidents and falls go down, and the reassurance for the householder’s family is absolutely enormous.”
Most programmes offer two homeshare arrangements for prospective participants. The first allows the student to live in an elderly person’s home rent-free in exchange for help around the house. The second requires the student to contribute money to household bills, but places fewer burdens on their time.
Research into homeshare projects in Spain and the USA indicates that participants are overwhelmingly satisfied by the arrangement. The Spanish study, for example, reported that 93.2% of elderly people had benefitted in some way from the programme, while 98.7% of students had benefitted.
The organisation that paired Monique and Mikyoung, Ensemble2Generations, conducts face-to-face interviews before placing people together. Students even have to put pen to paper to explain why they want a placement, so that their application can be examined by a handwriting expert. Despite this, some partnerships simply do not work out.
A major issue is that people of different generations may not always get on. Monique’s previous housemate was a young gardener who spent a lot of time out of the house. When they did occasionally eat together, the gardener did not want to have a conversation. Instead, according to Monique, he just stared vacantly at his phone. But that did not shake Monique’s confidence in homeshare.
“I never doubted whether I wanted to homeshare. I knew there were other people out there… It is a good solution for me.”
And although the gardener did not provide much companionship for Monique, experts widely acknowledge that homeshare is an effective antidote to loneliness – a problem that affects over one million elderly people in Britain, according to Age UK. Helen Bown, a policy expert who specialises in social isolation, says that the emotional support provided by a homeshare relationship often exceeds its financial advantages.
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