Age care policy needs a complete rethink. Homeshare is one solution
By Dr Don Edgar and Dr Patricia Edgar
May 7, 2023
Minister Mark Butler's Hugh Stretton Oration (April 27) demonstrates he gets it. He may be the first Minister we have had in Aged Care who understands the issues of ageing and is prepared to speak out. Policy makers and those in the professional age care industry (both advocates and providers) seem to be trapped in the same outmoded mindset: old people are a problem, needing 'care' (like children) and needing to be sequestered into old people's ghettoes where others can serve their bodily needs.
It is, overall, a dependency model, regressive, costly, and open to exploitation, ignoring the fundamental achievements in health care, and the radically longer age cycle we have been granted. The valuable life experiences and potential resources older people present as the first demographic in history to live close to a hundred years, are being written off and ignored.
There is a better way to think about ageing. It is now an expected, normal part of a life span, extending well beyond any assumed working age', where most people will need support from time to time, but not necessarily costly full-time care. The notion of age 'care' is infantilising, whereas 'support' for us as we age should recognise both the reality and the variability of need.
A scheme called 'Homeshare' is one way to help solve two problems at the same time - easing the rental crisis for young people and providing free home support for older people in need. It is an intergenerational approach which avoids the demonisation of 'selfish' older people living in big houses on their own and provides some of the social interaction known to be preventive of dementia and despair.
Many old people reach their eighties today in reasonable fitness and good health, but once there, frailty and the illnesses of ageing start to kick in. Most people's wish is to remain as independent as possible, living in their familiar community (ageing in place), and not as a burden to family members (if they have them) who have growing time demands.
We know from the research and policy reports that there is little quality of life in an aged care home, and that the more recent provision of aged care 'packages' is failing for lack of funds and qualified staff; both systems aimed at getting elders out of sight, out of mind. But many of us don't want a 'nice room' with unqualified staff doling out medications and unpalatable meals, with little opportunity for stimulating interpersonal contact; nor do we want poorly trained strangers coming into our homes and bossing us around.
But many of us do probably need help with shopping, cooking meals, cleaning up, watering the garden, putting out heavy garbage bins, and the comfort of knowing there is someone nearby we could call on if we fall or need a drive to a social outing or a medical appointment. It's support we need, not care, with all the demeaning connotations of that term. And it needs to be individualised, not run at great cost bureaucratically.
If, as many claim, old people (the selfish Boomers) live alone in a big house with spare bedrooms and want to stay there, the way out might be to offer a room rent-free to a young person desperately looking for accommodation, but unable to buy or pay rising rents. Then they could have someone live in, offering company, support in whatever way they need.
We discovered our own Homeshare person through family connections - a university student completing his final thesis after years struggling to combine study with a job to pay for rent. He was at a stage of being unable to afford any rental, even shared rentals with others, virtually homeless and forced to consider dropping out of university to earn more in a job. We had a spare bedroom and bathroom and offered him free rent in return for cooking some evening meals. He was happy to shop, cook and clean up, had experience with building so had practical skills. It is a happy confluence of resources (both his and ours). As well, he is trustworthy and interested in discussing ideas, a welcome companion, not a strange intruder.
The organisation called HomeShare has a system of matching up young and old to ensure compatibility, suitability, and safety, but has limited funding from the current aged care system and is not widely known. HomeShare gives the older person control, in a negotiated agreement, is entirely flexible as support needs change and relieves the burden of rent from young people, possibly university students, single mothers, retired nurses, etc. It hits two needy targets. (See HomeShare Connect (1800 692 464)
It's an approach which began in the US in 1970 with a group called 'The Gray Panthers' and then the 'National Shared Housing Resource Centre', to foster intergenerational and cross-cultural living networks. Canada, Spain, Germany, and other countries followed suit, mostly targeting students in need of accommodation. Pilot programs tried low rent rather than free rent; others failed because they charged administrative fees to both homeowners and sharers; some got bogged down in the mechanics of 'matching up', safety checks, evaluation of outcomes, etc. But the benefits were clear: better use of existing housing stock, relief from rising housing costs, delaying the need for costly age care services, reducing loneliness, offering companionship, and strengthening intergenerational relationships within local communities.
The main obstacles are the existing stereotypes and assumptions about age care, finding someone compatible, navigating boundaries (such as privacy) within the shared home, the tendency to bureaucratise the process for matching owners with sharers, 'evaluating outcomes', ensuring safety and non-exploitation.
We believe the best approach is to give the idea a bigger public profile as an option and to make private arrangements through personal networks. The young may use Facebook and Twitter, where the old may read newspapers and radio, but a trusted referral is the best way to ensure compatibility.
Each case will be different and negotiated agreements will vary, but HomeShare can be a viable option for many in need of some support as they age and for young people struggling to find housing in our current market. Governments at every level could promote community action to improve intergenerational contact and respect through the sharing of skills and resources.