Aging societies pose challenges that require a paradigm shift in our societal mindset. As we live longer, particularly in the retirement phase of life, we need to rethink how we finance ourselves, stay healthy, as well as how and where we live. All these aspects are interconnected.

The health impact of living arrangements

Fifty years ago, it was relatively common for multiple generations of a family to live beneath the same roof. While such an arrangement often proved crowded and loud, it not only allowed for the sharing of household duties and expenses, but provided an effective care network—particularly in sickness and old age.

Yet over the past few decades multi-generational households have declined in western and several Asian countries. As a result, a much higher share of over-65-year-olds now live in single person households,1 compared to younger age groups. In some industrialized countries, the share is over 40%.

Living alone has clear drawbacks versus living in communities. Separating a family into two or more homes typically proves more expensive and burdensome for the environment than sharing one accommodation, given the greater space requirement and per capita emissions. Arguably more important are the social consequences. Multiple studies show that living alone in old age is associated with a higher risk of depression and mortality,2,3 which in turn increases the burden on health care systems4 and government finances at a time when they are already stretched thin due to the burden of aging populations and rising health care costs.

Harvard University has conducted the longest study on happiness to date. It shows that healthy aging—or growing old in a way that enables people to stay mentally and physically healthy, and thus active and independent, for as long as possible—is significantly positively correlated with the quality of relationships,5 which are also easier to sustain within a community-based setting. Thus, trying to bring communal values back could ultimately lessen the burden on the individual, the community, the state, and the planet.

Rethinking retirement housing

Some countries have started to tackle these challenges with multi-generational housing projects, which bring several generations together in a community or even under one roof. Denmark, for example, is operating multiple inter-generational housing projects6,7 to reap the benefits of increased affordability and social interactions8 for young and old alike.

However, as bringing these inter-generational parties together runs counter to the trend of living in smaller households, the question arises: if families cannot make it work, why would it do so for unrelated people? Would it offer a higher quality of social interaction, or merely a community of convenience?

The answer might be to focus on multi-intra-generational-living projects instead of multi-inter-generational-living projects.

A multi-intra-generational living model could, for example, involve younger retirees caring for older retirees in purpose-built houses and communities. With life expectancy rising and health care quality generally improving, many people in the early stages of retirement are physically fit and look to stay active with some kind of meaningful occupation other than traditional “labor”. Research indicates that this is a healthy aging best practice.9

This sort of living arrangement may also help to counteract the mental health problems that often appear once retirees lose long-term relationships centered on the workplace.10 The quality of a relationship is also typically determined by commonality, so having people closer in age live in proximity might make it easier to establish common ground.

This approach should not be confused with traditional retirement homes, where the elderly are taken care of by qualified care personnel. These qualified workers would still be needed, but in lower quantities, as some of the work would be taken up by the community itself. The living space would also not necessarily be designed in the hotel-style of retirement homes, but flats and flat-shares.

Benefits for multiple generations

For some, the possibilities of healthy aging and reductions in daily living costs might be enough of an incentive to engage in this living-model. For others, stronger reward incentives like an “intragenerational credits” point system could be needed. Every service provided by a member of an intra-generational community is rewarded in points. In turn, these points can be spent on services from the community in the future or used to lower current rents or other daily living costs.

Some government or local municipality leadership would likely be required, too. However, the incentive of lower social security costs for the mounting share of elderly and the amount of evidence in favor of community living should be incentive enough for far-sighted regulators.

Having retirees move into purpose-built housing and leaving houses for the next generation brings additional benefits. Foremost, it might make existing housing more affordable for younger, larger families, which would reduce the need to build more houses—and the associated emissions required to do so. There are other potential benefits too, such as giving the newly retired a fresh purpose; easing the burden of finding enough care personnel for the elderly; and allowing older people to age more healthily in a community that offers higher quality relationships.

In an increasingly aging and resource-constrained world, these new options deserve more than just a thought.

The author is grateful for feedback from: Richard Mylles, Veronica Weisser, William Nicolle, Mike Ryan, Richard Morrow, Nalini Tarakeshwar, Karianne Lancee

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