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Multigenerational Communities: Reducing Loneliness and Dementia

The Agile Ageing Alliance is a passionate advocate for multigenerational living. Although, our primary focus is creative planning for new developments, given the large amount of existing housing stock that is not fit for purpose to support ageing in place, it’s equally important to be thinking about what is already there.

To this end, last year I joined a group of 12 transatlantic specialists in Washington DC to consider how housing in established neighbourhoods can be adapted with new housing models and technological innovations that offer the opportunity to connect multiple generations, reduce isolation and improve integration.

Convened by the German Marshall Fund of the States (GMF) and AARP (the American Association of Retired People) the output of our interaction is a policy paper designed to focus further transatlantic engagement around alternative housing models that serve multiple geneations. More about this later.

Let’s start by considering the merits of multigenerational agefriendly neighbourhoods.

A longitudinal study, published in PLOS Medicine earlier this month, reports the most robust evidence to date that increased social contact between ages 50 and 70 is associated with a significantly lower risk of developing dementia later in life.

According to the study’s lead author, Dr Andrew Sommerlad of UCL Psychiatry: “This finding could feed into strategies to reduce everyone’s risk of developing dementia, adding yet another reason to promote connected communities and find ways to reduce isolation and loneliness.”

Why Loneliness is Harmful

Another report in Psychology Today claims that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Lonely people are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships.

The report claims that loneliness reduces immunity, which can increase risk of disease. It also increases inflammation in the body, which can contribute to heart disease and other chronic health conditions.

And if that’s not bad enough, stress will affect us more if we’re lonely. Financial trouble, health problems, and everyday obstacles may take a bigger emotional toll on individuals who lack social and emotional support.

Therefore, It’s fair to say that when it comes to healthy ageing, the health/care benefits of multigenerational living should be a no brainer. But what about the cost implications?

Time is Right for a System Wide Rethink

The cost of caring for an ageing population is one of the biggest drains on local authorities dwindling resources. The CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting) believe the time is right for a “system-wide rethink” on public health investment.

A joint report from CIPFA and Public Health England claims that preventative health spending should be seen as an investment, not a cost, for communities and are calling for improved evaluation of public health spending.

CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman says: “Developing a robust evidence base for place-based spending on prevention is how we ensure that resources are used wisely to provide the best possible outcomes for the communities we serve.”

One of the proposed methods put forward in the report is using a cost benefit analysis, which CIPFA and PHE said, until now, has had a “limited role” in health spending. “We hope it will prompt a shift in thinking and be a catalyst for change in the near future.”

Michael Brodie, finance and commercial director for PHE, added: “Local organisations share our belief that promoting good health is an investment for their communities, not a cost. Health and wealth are inseparable and are two sides of the same coin, and revenue investments in prevention can support economic growth locally.”

Agefriendly Housing Needs to go from being an Exception to the Mainstream

Health and care services and local authorities are becoming increasingly aware of the crucial role housing plays in delivering better health, care, and wellbeing, but there is still much to be done.

At a grassroots level we need more enlightened architects. The good news is RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) see this as a priority. According to RIBA President Ben Derbyshire: “Well-designed, purpose-built new homes enable people to play a more active role in their communities and live healthy, happier lives. If we are to meet the challenge of housing an ageing population, agefriendly housing needs to go from being an exception to the mainstream.”

The potential benefits are significant – and not just for older adults. A multigenerational strategy can also help children and young adults learn and develop.

A report from UK think tank UAA claims that Children who regularly mix with older people see improvements to their language development, reading and social skills.

To illustrate this point, the Guardian spoke with Lorraine George, a development worker at Torbay council in Devon, who examined the development of children at intergenerational centres in the US, where there are several hundred facilities. Lorraine discovered improvements in language development, increased reading skills, greater self-esteem and confidence among the children and development of empathy.

Manisha Patel, a senior partner with London architects PRP tells me she has been pushing the multigenerational housing agenda for the last ten years and is delighted to report that it is now being taken seriously by the GLA and a growing group of Local Authorities around London.

Designing Homes for the Third Age

PRP was part of the competition winning consortium to develop the first of the Legacy Sites at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

The LLDC’s aspirations for the park emphasised quality design that would encourage residents to stay well into their third age. In response to this and to the growing need to cater for; changing family dynamics, extended families, choice for older adults and keeping communities together, Manisha conceived a mutigenerational housing concept 'Cobham Manor', which can be seen in the image above.

Chobham Manor consists of a three to four-storey dwelling and a separate, self-contained annexe in the form of a one-bedroom house. The two buildings are served by separate front doors and linked via a shared courtyard garden. This alternative housing typology provides a flexible home for an extended family, with members across three or four generations able to live side by side yet maintain their own independence.

According to Manisha the fully-fitted annexe can be used by grandparents, young couples, a recently qualified graduate or student, or a family member with a disability who wants to live independently yet remain close by.

Manisha says: “Young people can’t get on the housing ladder, so you get kids coming home and families growing who can’t afford to move. You’re getting loft conversions and extensions, and people are losing their independence. This is where the multigenerational house comes in.”

Exploring Examples of Best Practice in Europe and the USA

The aforementioned GMF AARP policy paper presents examples of good practice, policy enablers, and factors to consider for transatlantic transfer and lays out a pathway for moving from ideas to action that policymakers and practitioners can consult to determine what type of housing models may be appropriate for the unique context of their communities. This policy paper is intended to be a primer for the future exploration of specific models and the enabling of policies that can provide further support and direction to transatlantic urban and regional leaders. Click here to read the full report.

Image: Architects PRP's mutigenerational housing concept 'Cobham Manor'at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Image by PRP