Common Cause

Common Cause Between the Generations:
How the young and the old can team up to solve problems for both.

Young students need affordable housing. Many elderly people are isolated, in part because rooms in their homes are empty. These two facts make for a promising partnership.

Homeshare is a UK organization that matches young people with the elderly who have a spare room. The youth, often students, commit to 10 hours a week of helping with household chores and spending time with the elderly person. In exchange, the students pay very low rent.

London has become amongst the most expensive cities on Earth, but it is also home to 40 colleges and universities, leaving many young people with few affordable options for housing. Meanwhile, over 2 million elderly people in the country live alone. According to the UK National Health Service, more than a million of them, “say they go for over a month without speaking to a friend.” Homeshare simultaneously tackles both problems.

Homeshare is just one of many projects that have noticed this common interest. In Holland and Finland, students are invited to live in nursing homes, where they add a dose social energy. The youth, in turn, not only benefit from cheap rent, but also from the stories and insights of people with many more years of life experience.

In Montréal, the Yellow Door project focuses on this second benefit: wisdom and insight. There, 250 students help 300 elderly people with simple tasks, such as getting to appointments or using the internet. The youth, in turn, develop perspective not available to those who spend time only with people exactly their age.

These programs reestablish a dynamic that has been available throughout most of human history. Elderly people and the young have until recently, in most times and places, lived together in extended families. The benefits are essentially similar: older people have companionship and help, and the youth receive a place to stay and advice from people who have seen hard moments in life first-hand. According to Atul Gawande, however, both elderly and the young prefer to have the autonomy of living independently when that is an option. In countries such as India, where extended-family households are still common, more people are living separately as rising incomes make it possible.

Programs like Homeshare and the Yellow Door allow youth and the elderly alike to access some of the traditional benefits of extended families, but on their own terms, with the freedom to move or change the agreement if it is not working. Such programs are promising, because while modern life generates problems such as isolation, the solution need not be to return to previous ways of living.

Such programs, however, do contain risks. Nicola Slawson is a nurse who, while studying, took part in Homeshare. She recounts in a piece in The Guardian that while she signed a contract stating she would not work more than 10 hours a week, she found that, in practice, it was difficult to say no to her host while being a guest in her home. Later, her host fell ill, and Slawson found herself doing nursing work almost full time, free of charge.

The problems Slawson identifies need not be fatal for such programs. She highlights, however, that moving into someone’s home involves power dynamics that must be addressed to ensure success. When one person is effectively a host, and the other a guest, stronger mechanisms may be necessary to ensure students are not exploited. The needs of both elderly and youth must be taken seriously for both to fully benefit from their common interests.

Millions of elderly and young people would gain from being better connected. Hopefully, these projects are the first of many innovations that will take advantage of common interests to bring people together, so we may both tackle housing shortages and social dislocation.


 - Tristan Cleveland


Photo by Jake Thacker on Unsplash