Are The Generations Really Worlds Apart?

22/09/2016 11:52

The Generations Apart? report from the Intergenerational Foundation, suggests a geographical divide between young and old. The findings that more young people live in or close to city centres and more older people live in rural and suburban areas won't surprise most. Also, the polarization of young and old disguises a multitude of ages and circumstances. If families with children were included in the analysis, it may well have presented a more mixed picture.

The conclusions of the report point to part of the real problem; our failure to build enough houses for our growing population. Younger people are paying much more for housing as rents and house prices have risen which weakens their ability to make pension savings for their longer lives. Compounding the problem is the fact that many older households are unable to move to more suitable homes because the market is so weak in the UK. It is critical that Theresa May's new government addresses both problems as we seek to build 300,000 new homes and more.

We need a range of housing options for everyone whether they are looking to buy their first home or to downsize; one size doesn't fit all, and we need to future proof our homes so that they are fit for purpose as we age.

Beyond building more houses, age-friendly neighbourhoods could form part of the solution. This will have affordable and suitable homes for all ages, and will be easy and safe to get around on foot or by public transport. It will have features and services that support people to stay physically and mentally active, and to maintain social connections that are important for a good later life. There are a growing number of examples of age-friendly neighbourhoods which show what this could look and feel like. Co-housing first emerged in Denmark more than 30 years ago; this type of scheme is now attracting more interest from other countries around the world. Some have been designed with older people in mind but most have been created for everyone who want to get to know their neighbours and build a community. These are homes built closely together with all the usual rooms and features but which share common courtyards or gardens and the use of a communal house.

Housing is just one physical aspect of an age-friendly environment. An age-friendly neighbourhood is also somewhere where you feel safe, where you can walk around and find it easy to navigate with connecting footpaths and good lighting. Safe and accessible public spaces and buildings are essential for people to meet, bump into each other; have a seat and a chat. Age-friendly Nottingham's 'Take a Seat' project is a great example of a low cost and simple way to help people feel confident about getting out and about in their neighbourhood, with over one hundred businesses signed up to offer a seat; some also offer a drink and toilet facilities. The health and social benefits of access to green spaces, whatever your age, is well documented.

Repeatedly we hear that local amenities are important for age-friendly neighbourhoods. Local shops, pharmacies, nurseries, GP surgeries and other co-located services are useful when people do not have the resources or the transport to travel further.

However, what really makes a neighbourhood suitable for all ages is the relationships between people. Most people of any age will say their relationships with others is the most important to them. The physical infrastructure to create space for this can be built but the quality of those interactions, makes the difference to our lives. Positive and meaningful relationships between neighbours, businesses, service providers, community and voluntary groups should be the aspiration of any age-friendly neighbourhood. The men's sheds' movement which started in Australia, has started to spread across the UK. It's creating a network of spaces where older men - often less likely to get involved in community activities - can gather to chat while working together on practical projects. No one is paid and most decisions are reached by common agreement, creating a loose group of 'volunteers' where everyone benefits and friendships flourish.

There is a place for intergenerational living and communal schemes which bring together young and old. As well as the co-housing schemes in Denmark, there is a 'grandparents' park in Kansas, USA, which has been created for the community's older residents to meet, exercise, take a seat and play with their grandchildren. This is the kind of intergenerational space that celebrates the importance of older people to families and communities. However, these may not work for everyone.

Above all else, encouraging everyday interactions between different generations is critical. This is what most of us grandparents, parents, uncles and aunties, son and daughters and grandchildren have been doing for years without giving it a second thought.