How Canada is tackling modern issues with old solutions…
What is inter-generational living and why is it such a popular buzzword in Canada these days? Let’s start with the basics. According to yourdictionary.com, the definition of intergenerational “is something where multiple generations of people intermingle or come together.” To take this a step further, inter-generational living describes household arrangements in which people from different generations live together under the same roof. Great, so what?
I’ll tell you what! Modern inter-generational living offers a new take on an old concept. The iGen approach to housing tackles a number of current issues like housing affordability, social isolation, sustainability and even healthy aging. That’s a lot to handle with one concept. Never fear, we’ve curated the juiciest morsels out there into one delicious and easily digestible feast for you to enjoy just in time for Intergenerational Day on June 1st. Bon appétit!
Origins of inter-generational living
The idea of inter-generational living is not a new concept. In fact, within Canada the idea was prevalent as recently as 1851 when the average household size was about 6.2 people per home. This number often included kids, parents, grand-parents, and even great-grandparents, all living together under one roof. Since that time, there has been a slow and steady decline in average household sizes, dipping to just 2.5 people per household in 2011. How far the pendulum has swung! Now, a whopping one in every six adults in Canada lives alone. That’s a lot of lonely people. So how have other countries dealt with similar problems?
Europe as a model
In recent years, a renewed interest in inter-generational living has emerged based on the success of similar programs in Europe. For several years now, countries like the Netherlands, France, Finland, Spain, and Germany have implemented university-sponsored retirement communities as a means of increasing the stock of housing for students and providing seniors with companionship. A recent French article published by France 24 notes that there are generally two types of successful iGen programs:
The first is when a senior rents a room in his or her home to a young person at below-market rate. Although the young person is not contractually bound to spend time with their senior, they are there as a watchful presence. The second is when a young person lives at a senior’s home for free in exchange for a prerequisite number of hours of help and companionship.
The success of these programs has been profound, with participants reporting mutual benefits on both sides. Older hosts report an appreciation for the extra income and often a renewed energy in their life simply as a result of being around a younger person. On the flip side, the younger guests appreciate having an affordable place to live and a potential friend or mentor figure that they can connect with.
Made in Canada!
After capturing the attention of a number of scholarly institutions, the concept of inter-generational living has re-emerged and made the long journey across the Atlantic resulting in numerous pilot programs popping up all across North America. Canadian programs such as the Toronto Homeshare Pilot Project, based out of the University of Toronto, or the iGEN project, launched by Happipad in collaboration with UBC, recruit hosts with spare bedrooms and pair them with guests who require affordable housing. Although programs vary a bit from one to the next they most commonly recruit seniors living alone at home as hosts and pair them with student guests looking for affordable accommodations.
So far, iGen projects have shown tremendous promise and the demand from the Canadian public for the expansion of these programs is high. According to this CBC article, which analyzed reports from the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis, there are over 5 million empty spare bedrooms across the province of Ontario alone! So what do we do with all this space and how can we use it to our advantage?
Providing an affordable housing alternative
We are all aware of the extremely high prices of housing across many Canadian cities making it difficult for young adults starting out to find an affordable living space. In fact, one recent study suggests that Canada actually has the least affordable housing prices in the world! Certainly Toronto and Vancouver commonly make headlines for their exorbitant rental rates (if you don’t believe me, take a look at this article), and as Rentseeker’s recent infographic shows, it isn’t exactly cheap to rent in a number of Canadian cities. Smaller urban areas like Victoria and Kelowna also have high prices relative to the cost of living. And don’t even get me started on the cost of living in Yellowknife!
The demand for affordable housing among Canadian students is enormous and rental housing supply isn’t keeping up with that demand, especially in larger urban centres. Data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation indicates that the average rental vacancy rate is just over 2% nationwide, leading to longer wait times, higher rents, and renters forced to accept substandard living conditions just to find a place to live.
With such high prices, it’s no wonder inter-generational living offers an attractive housing option for students on a budget, providing prices below the average rental costs and a furnished room in an established home to boot. In some cases, student renters can further reduce their rent by contributing to tasks around the house. And although the rental prices are reduced for guests, hosts still report enjoying the extra income they receive for a room they otherwise would never have rented out.
Combating social isolation
Although people often take care of their economic needs first, studies have repeatedly shown that there are a number of intangible benefits to inter-generational living participants that go well beyond the monetary benefits. Key among those is tackling the growing social isolation epidemic among Canada’s aging population and even among today’s youth.
For seniors, inter-generational living offers a way to socially connect with others. It’s well-documented that a strong social circle can benefit both physical and mental health, and that these effects are particularly pronounced in seniors. A 2010 study from the University of Chicago found that seniors who lead rich social lives tend to be healthier than seniors who live in isolation. The challenge is that it becomes more difficult to stay socially active as we age. According to Statistics Canada, about 20% of seniors don’t participate in regular social events, and can often go over 4 weeks without socializing with others.
In recent years, the problem of social isolation among senior citizens in Canada has grown to a point where care facilities and non-profit organizations like the Canadian Red Cross, the Sinai Health System, and the Saint Elizabeth Foundation are setting up companionship programs to provide seniors with social contact. In the UK, a government strategy to combat loneliness among seniors has postal workers going door to door to check on people and provide companionship. But short of instituting this kind of program in Canada, what can we do to fight social isolation?
iGen as a solution
In much the same way as the visiting postman, inter-generational living allows seniors to remain in their homes and simultaneously tackles loneliness simply by breaking up the age silos that many Canadians tend to live in. One UNBC student participant noted “[o]lder adults can become socially isolated living in situations like these but I think going to university and being a student can actually be kind of a lonely situation sometimes, too. It gives both parties the opportunity to have a social outlet.” And not just a once-in-a-while social outlet, iGen provides interaction on a daily basis without having to leave the house an advantage over something like a home visiting program with a bi-weekly schedule.
Moreover, placing seniors in regular contact with younger people promotes cross-generational learning, provides invigorating new stimuli, and creates new connections – something that tackles the problem of loneliness in general. As the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging pointed out “[o]ne in four women and one in five men report feeling lonely at least some of the time” – a fact that is alarmingly high. But don’t just think that it’s seniors in need. As Forbes correctly points out “[s]ubjective loneliness is high in adolescence and young adulthood, declines through middle age, and rises again in old age.” So pairing young adults with seniors in an inter-generational home sharing arrangement is beneficial to both parties.
It turns out living together also has the potential to impact the sustainability of the entire Canadian housing economy. How? Inter-generational living contributes a boost to current housing inventory without requiring any additional construction. Every spare room that is offered is one less person that requires their own space. As this Vancouver column describes, the math works out just like carpooling, “whether it is a car or a home: one person traveling alone in a vehicle represents a much costlier per capita commute than 30 people sharing a bus.”
Okay, but what do the numbers look like for spare rooms? According to the 2011 Canada census, about 31% of bedrooms in Canada sit empty! In Canada’s two biggest cities, Vancouver and Toronto, 18% and 16.6% of bedrooms sit empty, respectively. Montreal’s empty bedroom rate is on par with Vancouver at 18.1%, and Calgary has a much higher empty bedroom rate at 31.6%. A report by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis estimates that over half of the population of Ontario is overhoused and that there are over 5 million empty spare bedrooms in Ontario alone. That is equivalent to 25 years worth of construction! Imagine if those same empty spare bedrooms were instead used to house people in need of affordable housing. Are you starting to see why inter-generational living is such a popular buzzword now?
Rising costs of aging
But wait there’s more! Despite broad awareness of Canada’s aging population, very little has been done by the government to prepare for the costs associated with aging. As a recent study from the Fraser Institute noted, health care spending on a per-person basis rises sharply after the age of 65. In 2014, the average per-person government spending on health care for Canadians between the ages of 15 and 64 was $2,664. On the other hand, the average annual per-capita health care costs for those 65 and over was $11,625. This is 4.4 times greater than the 15–64 average. With expected increases in the over-65 demographic category, health care costs are projected to rise sharply.
Housing has an important role to play in demographic aging, so much so that it is one of eight key dimensions of the World Health Organization’s Age Friendly Cities initiative. Inter-generational living has attracted policy makers and government officials because it can potentially serve as a tool to mitigate impending increases in health care costs. According to Orange Tree Living, seniors who participate in inter-generational living burn 20% more calories, are less reliant on canes, have fewer falls, and perform better on memory tests.
For the nearly 90% of seniors who would like to age in their homes, inter-generational living can also be a tool to help them age in place, by providing seniors with a little extra assistance with day-to-day tasks. Living at home also reduces the costs associated with care facilities, in-home assistance programs, and additional visits to the hospital, since some of these activities could be handled by a guest.
Take home message
There is growing interest in inter-generational living and it won’t stop anytime soon. Nonetheless, we should keep in mind that while many inter-generational projects have been undertaken, the long-term benefits are difficult to measure so early in it’s Canadian lifespan. Still, these small inter-generational living pilot programs are making a noticeable impact on their participants.
This unique housing arrangement is a win-win solution for students and seniors, offering a potentially elegant option to tackle social isolation and housing affordability. At large scales, inter-generational living offers a way to open up housing inventory without additional construction and help mitigate the rising health care costs of an aging population. With all these benefits, don’t be surprised to see inter-generational living become more popular in your community.
If you’d like to get involved in an inter-generational home sharing program either as a host or a guest check out happipad.com to find out more.