Life: slide or roundabout?

roundaboutSomething enormous is happening. Two enormous things, in fact, and in time they may find a way to work together. That was the conclusion of this afternoon, which I spent in a very interesting discussion with people in cities all over the world, thanks (again) to Cisco.

One of the enormous things is demographic shift; the other is technology. Often they seem at odds (we hear that old people aren’t interested in computers, and that, anyway, technology is no substitute for face-to-contact). But they are not, in reality, opposite trends; together, they could transform our sense of who we are, change our understanding of what it means to live a long and rewarding life.

Thanks to Cisco’s telepresence technology, participants from Toronto, Washington, Almere, London, Geneva, Manchester and Brussels talked about ageing for 90 minutes without having to go anywhere much. (I got a bus.) And very interesting it was too – especially the point made by John Beard of the World Health Organisation, that we think in a thoroughly anachronistic way about the shape of human lives: youth and education, then work, then retirement. We imagine a life rather as a kind of slide, which you climb to the top (actually, this is my metaphor, but I think I’m representing him fairly) and then slither down through physical and mental and financial decline to death.

In fact, it would make much more sense to think of life as a series of roundabouts, which you could jump on and off at different points, dropping in and out of paid work to have children, write a book, volunteer, look after elderly parents, do a postgraduate degree, learn something new.

We need, in other words, to rethink life to account for the fact that people are living much longer and, on the whole, more healthily. This would doubtless help us make sense of the dead years, Marc Freedman’s ‘identity void’ between 55 and 80 when people aren’t really sure what they’re for.

It would also make far more sense for women. Annemarie Jorritsma, the mayor of Almere in the Netherlands, said she couldn’t believe that women are still expected to have children and forge their careers at the very same time. The only reason for this, when it is perfectly possible to work effectively into your seventies, is that it happens to suit thirtysomething men. Anne Marie says she never imagined she get to the age of 60 and this ridiculous paradox still be the case.

We have to hope that, somehow, economic necessity will help us to start thinking in terms of roundabouts , because it’s pretty clear we’d be a lot better off if we could all get off the unproductive and soul-destroying slides.

The comfort of strangers

Neil Bell and Gillian Chardet

Neil Bell and Gillian Chardet

Gillian had a house; Neil needed somewhere to live. Gillian was worried about being alone and the responsibility of keeping things working; Neil was largely retired, and could fix leaking taps.

Gillian is 88, Neil 61, and they found each other through Homeshare, one of several local authority experiments to see whether people with space to spare might benefit from having someone living with them, not as a paying lodger but as a helping one. Today the pair of them share Gillian’s beautiful red-brick converted barn in a West Sussex village, with its beamed sitting room and fruit trees in the garden. No money changes hands, but Neil drives Gillian to doctor’s appointments and the supermarket and provides practical help around the house. He is a reassuring and useful presence, both physically and psychologically.

‘We both put our names forward for Homeshare and, after vetting, it was decided we might be a good match,’ Gillian says. ‘We met first in a neutral place, at the house of old friends of mine, then we had a couple of meals out. We haven’t got a terrific lot of things in common, but perhaps that’s why we get on. I think I get more out of it than Neil does. I’m very difficult to share a kitchen with, but Neil’s fitted in with my funny arrangements. I know I couldn’t possibly live with at least half of my friends. It’s all down to him that we get on.’

It can be hard enough living with people you know well, even those you love. Homes are filled with emotion and vulnerability and assertions of identity. But this arrangement evidently works, perhaps because Neil travels light. Gillian’s home remains filled with her stuff; he has his own room, including a toilet and washbasin.

‘I think if I had to share Gillian’s bathroom – to move in my shaving stuff and toothbrush – that might be difficult,’ he says. ‘I get up first and make porridge but other than that we don’t eat the same food. I’m coeliac and have to eat funny food and I wouldn’t inflict that on anyone.’ They do, however, usually sit down to eat together.

Neil is a former builder, traveller and shiatsu practitioner. He meditates for an hour each morning; perhaps his spirituality helps him keep the distance that Gillian needs to go on being herself in her own home.

Homeshare looks in theory like an excellent solution to two dovetailing problems: older or disabled people who don’t want to live alone, and others, probably younger, without much money or anywhere to live, who are willing to offer practical help in exchange for a roof over their heads. Similar schemes operate in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the USA. The attractions of cross-border homesharing for young travellers or students are obvious and, internationally, Homeshare is much more popular than it is here.

The three local authorities that have experimented with homesharing in Britain have found, however, that marketing and running the schemes is expensive. Applicants must be interviewed and vetted and undergo police checks; they must meet each other and negotiate their likes and dislikes and be monitored fairly intensively for the first month and occasionally thereafter. West Sussex, which brought Gillian and Neil together, was funding a worker to manage the scheme but is now outsourcing the coordination of those homeshares for which it remains responsible and not pursuing any more.

Keith Hipwood is Gillian and Neil’s Homeshare coordinator, his work partly paid for by West Sussex, and partly by NAAPS, the charity that supports small, community based care schemes.  ‘When Homeshare works, it works brilliantly,’ Keith says. ‘But when I took over the West Sussex scheme they had only four matches, following three years’ work. There was a waiting list of 40 people, but West Sussex is a big county and the householders were in the wrong place or not the right matches. Homeshare tends not to become a priority for social services because the process is too lengthy to stop someone going into a home after a crisis; it’s difficult to demonstrate its usefulness in that sense.’

Keith’s view is that Homeshare works best in a clearly defined locality or in dense urban settings. It is perhaps no coincidence that of the three local authorities that have experimented with it – West Sussex, Wiltshire and Oxford – the latter has had most success: it is the most urban, a place where property is expensive, and has a large student population.

Some privately-run Homeshare schemes exist, and perhaps they offer a more promising business model. They usually require a monthly payment from both householder and homesharer; if the schemes can generate enough volume, a coordinator’s salary becomes viable. In London and other urban centres, homesharing has been particularly attractive to foreign nationals, who are happy to undertake work around the house in exchange for somewhere to stay, perhaps even in a rather expensive part of town. NAAPS’ immediate ambition, having recently over the coordination of Homeshare in Britain, is to network the various fragmented London schemes and demonstrate that in the right setting, marketed less as a solution for social services than as an affordable housing choice, it can really work.

Neil and Gillian have been together for two years, long for a homeshare. (Many are fixed-term contracts of six months or a year.) Gillian hopes their arrangement will last forever, but they both recognise that if she develops personal care needs, that will be the end of it, because that’s not what homesharing is about. ‘He didn’t come here to look after me,’ Gillian says, ‘and anyway I’d be absolutely hopeless at being looked after by anybody.’

Being a homesharer does impose constraints on Neil – he tends not to stay out with his partner overnight, and she doesn’t stay in his room because he feels that would unbalance the household. ‘I’ve had friends over to supper and once or twice someone has stayed over, but I don’t treat the house exactly as I would if it were my own,’ Neil says. ‘I became a bit of a nomad after I stopped working, and I suppose that has made me quite flexible.’

‘I don’t mind if Neil has people here,’ Gillian says. ‘I can talk to most people, and his friends always seem very compatible. He’s got his interests and beliefs and I like hearing about them. It’s been marvellous. He’s got his life outside and he comes and goes, but I’m always happier when he’s here.’