Intergenerational living: The future of housing?

By Peter Eising, Managing Director & Registered Architect, Pacific Environments Architects

Our population is getting ready for retirement, with people living longer and having fewer children. At face value, it might make sense to just keep building more retirement villages and aged care facilities. But is that the best option for our elderly population, our younger generations, and our society? It’s time we recognised a new option for living that has its roots in the past but focuses on current technologies and standards – intergenerational living.

image credit Andrew Ang, unsplash.

The problem with retirement living

Our society developed retirement villages as a way of bringing together people from a similar generation and life experience, providing friendships, security, and wellbeing.

However, about half of older New Zealanders experience some level of loneliness in their lives. Social isolation and loneliness have been linked to a significant number of physical mental conditions, from high blood pressure and heart disease, to depression, anxiety, and even dementia. And unfortunately, although being in a retirement village can ease those feelings for some people, that’s not always the case.

As one University of Auckland study (Dodds, A.T. 2018, ‘Old age, retirement villages and New Zealand society: A critical narrative analysis of the experiences of retirement village residents’) said, “Social interactions within retirement villages do not alleviate loneliness and isolation for everyone. Being exposed to a social network does not guarantee close relationships, and retirement villages are only partly able to address residents’ social needs.”

Having a sense of worth is vital for every human being – and studies show that seniors who are surrounded by supportive family and friends have higher self-esteem. Keeping these social connections strong is vital to their happiness.

The answer to providing those social connections could be intergenerational living.

What is intergenerational living?

Imagine if the next generation of living could:

  • Free up people’s lives, helping them reduce stress, spend more time together, and access learning, growth and simple support?

  • Enable both parents to work as they choose, or need, to?

  • Provide children with a close supportive family environment, learning from their older loved ones?

  • Empower grandparents to feel useful and connected to their family through shared care and support as they age?

That’s intergenerational living. It usually brings families together, whether under a single roof or in separate homes within a community. Or it may bring together older people and students, creating benefits for both of them. Regardless of the make-up of the people, it’s about bringing together people of all ages for the mutual benefit of all.

Designing for connection

As we look to develop future retirement villages that are more open to multiple generations, or design communities specifically for intergenerational living, what do we need to consider?

Firstly, intergenerational living can be done at all levels. Whether it’s building a second dwelling on your own property, creating a purpose-built home that caters to all generations, or building a whole community, you can make any situation a successful intergenerational living option. It just requires looking at it differently and asking yourself:

  • What does each generation of the family need?

  • How will each person use the space?

  • What spaces can we create that will foster connection?

  • Where do we draw the line between privacy and independence and coming together?

Secondly, amenities nearby are key – from schools to sports grounds, supermarkets to cafés, doctors to public transport hubs. Whether it’s including those amenities within a village or co-locating a village alongside a primary school or a park, there are plenty of ways to ensure that residents of all ages are easily able to access the amenities they need.

Intergenerational housing in action

A variety of intergenerational living models are already working well overseas, from single housing to medium and high-rise apartments sharing community facilities.

At Humanitas Deventer, (video of project featured above) an independent living home for seniors in the Netherlands, students can live there for free. All they have to do in return is spend 30 hours each month being a “good neighbour.” Residents say that the benefits go both ways.

At the Bridge Meadows community in Portland, Oregon, the new adoptive parents of foster kids live alongside seniors. The elderly provide help and stability to the adoptive parents and the kids, and in turn gain a sense of wellbeing and purpose in their lives. And the results are pretty incredible – 85% of the kids find greater academic success, while 85% of elders say there’s more meaning and purpose in their lives.

Across the world, there are countless examples of intergenerational housing models working well – now it’s about taking what works from those models and applying them to the New Zealand environment.

Commercialising intergenerational living

If we want this to succeed on a commercial level, we need to come up with different ways to implement it: designing buildings that enable genuine connections, and undertaking feasibility studies to economically incentivise each project. That requires an investment of time upfront, but will pay off hugely in the long-term.

Another option is build-to-rent as a lifestyle choice. Overseas we see it all the time – apartment buildings or villages designed specifically for those who want to rent for life. A young couple can start off in a one-bedroom apartment, then move elsewhere in the complex as their family grows. The grandparents can move into the same complex, and facilities on site (like lounges, workspaces, cafés) enable the whole family to live fulfilled lives within the space.

Negotiations are underway with the government to make this an asset class in itself, with incentives for investors and developers to get involved. With luck, this will open up more commercially-viable options for developers to work on.

An investment in family

One of the reasons I’m so passionate about intergenerational living is that it minimises the effects of an ageing population – certainly something I think about as I get older!

As architects, our job is to design buildings to suit how people live and work. But I think our responsibility goes further than that. What can we practically do that enables people’s lives to be better? I firmly believe intergenerational living has a part to play in achieving that.

If we can get it right, we as a society will end up spending less on mental health and less on people who don’t have a support system. We end up with kids who are more balanced, and elderly people who feel good about themselves. That’s certainly the kind of future I’d like to live in.