George, a student with refugee status, needed a new place to stay after completing his degree. “I was living in student accommodation, and then I wasn’t a student,” he recalls.
Norman, a retired publisher, had been living on his own for 12 years since his wife’s death. Though he is well-supported by his extended family, and still very active, he was lonely and had more than enough space. “I thought it would be helpful and enjoyable to have someone to live with,” he says.
Sometimes the solution to two problems lies in combining them in an innovative way.
The concept behind Homeshare is simple: matching young people in need of affordable housing with older people seeking a little support or companionship. The result is a win-win solution that both fills a gap in older-age care and connection and helps young people save money. But the benefits go beyond the practical: people who homeshare often find they form a bond closer to family than flatmate.
Before meeting Norman, George was a little anxious about living with someone older. “My English wasn’t as good as it is now. I was worried I might say something that might seem rude.” He was reassured when the two turned out to be an excellent match; they struck up a rapport and got to know each other quickly. After living together for a year and three months, they joke and recall like old friends.
Norman, a veteran traveller, had fewer reservations about cultural differences. “I’ve known quite a few Lebanese and Palestinian people—the culture isn’t so different, though of course Syria was French-occupied, and Palestine was British-occupied. And I’ve read a lot about Levantine culture.” He is even more dismissive of the generational gap:
“The fact that we’re different ages shouldn’t make all that much difference, should it? We’re both radical in our politics. Our only disagreement is that I have an allotment, but George is on a no-carb diet and won’t even look at my tomatoes.”
Even so, there are some aspects of today’s tech-embedded world that Norman admits George understands better than he does. “I retired just around the time publishers stopped receiving typescript manuscripts and received disks instead. I’m way out of the loop on that. But George knows a lot about computers. So I have three sons who know all about computers.” “By his third son he means me,” says George.
Homesharers often benefit from mutual skill exchange; young people find they benefit from the knowledge and life experience of their older companions, while giving them help with apps and virtual meeting spaces that in turn helps them stay connected to their own grown-up children, and the wider world. In a country where, according to Age UK, 1.4 million older people struggle with loneliness, the importance of an enhanced sense of connection is clear. By helping with chores like shopping and cooking, and supporting their older companions at events outside the house, young sharers, often far from their own families, report feeling less lonely too.
“I come from a culture where family is very important,” says George. “I always thought that people outside Syria don’t have that kind of relationship. I was surprised how close Norman’s family is — they really take care of him. And they take care of me, too.”
Norman’s adult children were supportive of the idea of their father sharing his home. “They know I won’t stay confined to the house,” he says. “They’re glad I have someone with me.” Now, he says, the whole family have taken to George; Norman’s granddaughter and her partner have helped George secure his status in the UK, so he can continue to live and work here. “I don’t see George as a child, though,” Norman clarifies. “I see him as an individual. As an adult. And as someone far from home. I try to support him.”
To that end, Norman has introduced George to some ‘traditional’ UK activities. “I’d never flown a kite before,” says George. “I always saw it on TV, but Norman actually took me to fly one. He also took me to see a Midsummer Night’s Dream." Seeing Shakespeare plays has proven an ideal activity for the pair: George enjoys expanding his vocabulary, and Norman, who is hard of hearing, can follow a story he knows by heart. Another favourite, George recalls, was seeing the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night together last year; he had never seen fireworks before. “It’s the first time in a long time I’ve heard explosions in a nice way,” he says. “Because I was walking with a Rollator [mobility aid],” adds Norman, “we were given a very good view.” George confirms: “Another benefit of going out with Norman — good seats.”
While Norman clearly lives an active life both inside and outside the house — he continues to work for a charitable foundation and enjoys bike rides on his own — many homesharers choose to share their homes so that they can continue to live independently. It’s a different way of caring, one that enables older people to stay visible and engaged in their communities, and matches the level of care to the level of need. Rather than putting people in predefined boxes, Homeshare puts the emphasis on “mutual shared relationships,” giving people the agency to find the arrangement that works for them.
Far from his initial worries, George is delighted with how much his English has improved since living with Norman. “He has an incredible vocabulary. My friends are always amazed that I am using words like ‘magnificent’ now, because of Norman’s influence.”
“When I tell friends or colleagues about [Homeshare],” George says, “they always say something like wow, I didn’t know that exists, what a good idea.” Before COVID-19, interest in Homeshare schemes was on the rise. While it’s difficult to say how the lockdown will affect longer-term living, there will still be people who need homes and people who need companionship — perhaps now more than ever. “It’s amazing,” says George. “It’s changed the way I see community in this country. I never thought I’d have a family here.”
The match between Norman and Jorge was arranged and supported by Two Generations, one of the UK’s small but growing networks of home share organisations. Homeshare UK and its members developed the policies and practice over many years. Five hundred UK households are part of Homeshare UK and it has also become a global movement with extensive programmes in many countries.