I was very surprised recently as I read an article on the BBC website addressing the loneliness of the elderly (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7701115.stm) The conclusions of the Help the Aged report were not in themselves surprising. If half of women over 65 are living alone, the fact that 1 million British pensioners consider themselves to be “often or always lonely” is sadly to be expected. What surprised me was the solutions the charity's report proposed:
“Amongst its recommendations, the report says the government should ensure the state pension is at a level which allows older people to live comfortable and stable lives.
Improved design of public areas, better healthcare and more provision of bereavement support are all issues which need to be tackled...”
How do these proposals stop someone feeling lonely? Better healthcare would just allow them to be lonely for longer, and how do you design a public area that encourages you to start a conversation with a pensioner? Less lighting and more blindspots might encourage the phrase “Gies yer pension!”, but beyond that I'm stumped.
Surely it's not a gigantic leap of imagination to consider that a solution to loneliness might be to invite another lonely person to stay in your home. Give a pensioner a health visitor and they will chat for an hour, give them a housemate and they can chat for a lifetime (what remains of it anyway).
Seriously though, the life of the pensioner has changed radically in the last few decades. Gone is the assumption that there will be room in your children's home for grandma. Communities have been broken up as industries have disintegrated, your family has most likely scattered around the country in search of work. If your spouse dies, you can be left terribly isolated.
The younger generation can go onto the internet flatshare websites and look for flatmates to lower their outgoings, but for the elderly the person they might share their house with is of far greater importance and less accessible if their IT skills aren't up to scratch. In my opinion this is where the government can step in. Lonely pensioners should be able to submit an in-depth profile to a government body or charity and be matched with other pensioners with similar interests, political outlook, daytime telly preferences etc. These relationships could last for 10-20 years and end in death so its very important the choice is right. It's not going to be a 1 or 2 year stay before another job opportunity opens up in another town like it is for the young folks.
Problems come with the fact that one of the sharers could well be saying goodbye to a house they have lived in for decades so there would need to be good social services support at the start to make sure no-one is taking advantage and the match is right for both parties. Perhaps trial periods could be established as routine while the mover's house is on the market. It would also not be appropriate to pair someone with care needs with someone who could meet them. The scheme would have to be seen as a way of helping healthy pensioners stay healthy.
The advantages to sharing are potentially massive for the sharers and for the economy as a whole. Those wishing to share can choose to either be sellers, who are happy to sell their old home and have a massive cash boost, or live-in landlords who can supplement their pension with a handy regular rent payment. Disposable income sky-rockets for both parties, and if this is rolled out around the country, we might just receive a nice boost out of recession. House prices would of course fall further but would it be worth it for affordable housing and a happy, healthy elderly?
It is important that this is just an option for people. There should be no penalty for those who are happy on their own. The current levels are £90.70 a week for a single person and £145.05 a week for a couple. I'm not sure any scheme such as I have proposed would need any more incentive than a promise that sharing would not jeopardise your single person rate.
1.5 million older people don't look forward to Christmas at all. That's just sad. Something needs to be done!