There is a risk to downsizing. Too often transitions, like moving out of a long term family home, mean a loss of social and emotional connections and a lowered resilience to loneliness.
Long term residence in one community has been suggested, for example in Wenger and Burholt’s 2004 study, as a good indicator that someone will not be isolated or lonely at any time.
Despite much policy debate and pilot projects we are still poorly supported as we navigate some key transitions, particularly in older age. So it is important that downsizing in older age to offer up more housing stock for the younger generations does not become another enforced transition that undermines choice and increases the risk of suffering from loneliness as we age.
Retirement already often brings a sudden loss of social interaction and this can be the start of loneliness – particularly for men. We should think hard about our retirement decisions and how we will sustain our need to interact and contribute.
If it is properly managed, downsizing could work very well for many of us. For example, it could help us prepare for the different lifestyle of retirement, where our social needs will more likely revolve around getting out in the daytime to meet friends, volunteering more or taking part in other activities within our immediate community.
Or perhaps a more attractive solution would be the opposite of downsizing: move more people into the larger home. Schemes such as Homeshare, championed by Shared Lives Plus, enable older people to stay in their own homes for longer by receiving a little bit of support or company from a ‘Homesharer’ – often students or public service workers who cannot afford housing – in return for letting them live rent free in their house.
United for All Ages, a social enterprise for intergenerational practice, suggests another option: supporting multi-generational households. Although a loss of privacy is for many a rather unattractive prospect, both the USA and the UK are seeing growing numbers of families sharing one home, and United for All Ages is calling on government to recognise and support this trend.
But for downsizing to be really managed well, both the individual and local organisations, the statutory and business sectors need to take more responsibility to create better places to grow older. This is only really happening in a minority of places, and despite their relative low cost, the shopping list for better places to grow older are not likely to be prioritised at a time of cuts.
So, is this recent announcement from Housing Minister Grant Shapps simply a knee-jerk reaction in the search for a supposedly easy answer to a lack of housing for the people who really need it? Yes, people who are older and who want to move out of their larger family homes may welcome support to do this, but finding the right new home is an integral part of keeping those older people properly connected to their community and is a decision that cannot be rushed.
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Wenger, G.C. and Burholt, V. (2004) Changes in levels of social isolation and loneliness among older people in a rural area: a twenty-year longitudinal study. Canadian Journal on Aging, 23, 2, 115–27