Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
To cut loneliness and costs, the Spanish capital region wants older citizens to move in together.
Any region with an aging population faces certain challenges, from managing housing and health-care costs to battling loneliness and decreased mobility. Hoping to make things a little easier for its elderly citizens, Madrid has a simple plan: Encourage them to move in together.
The city’s hope is that the benefits work in two directions: Aging residents will lead happier, safer, more comfortable lives if they don’t live alone. At the same time, they could share many costs of living and social care, and make it easier and more efficient for the state to monitor them and offer assistance.
The plan is part of a package that also includes more contact between seniors and social services via Whatsapp and Skype, and comes to a city where the elderly population is growing fast. Madrid is the region with the highest life expectancy in Spain—currently 84 years—and 1.1 million people among its metro area’s population are over 65. Among this population, 31 percent are already over 80. Managing this growth is likely to strain state resources, and there’s certainly a bluntly pragmatic aspect to the plan. Bundling older citizens together into shared apartments would make them cheaper and easier to provide care for, while avoiding the expense and loss of independence that often comes with putting people in retirement homes.
Its ability to cut costs doesn’t mean the concept is a bad or heartless idea. Providing innovative solutions like apartment sharing could also be a positive opportunity to create new ways of living for citizens who don’t wish to see their final years as a mere anteroom to death. It also reflects a shift in senior care that has already been going on in Europe for some time. It used to be common for European states to place older people who needed assistance in retirement homes—especially in Northern Europe, where few seniors share households with their children.
Nowadays, there is an increasing emphasis on more flexible, experimental ways of caring for seniors. Norway, for example, has opened state-funded senior homes in Spain, where costs are lower and weather is warmer. Both Finland and the Netherlands have pilot schemes that mingle senior and student housing to encourage a mutually better quality of life. More prosaically, beyond these unusual projects, there has been a general move toward more home care. In the U.K., for example, an elderly person whose limited mobility might have seen them placed in residential care 30 years ago is nowadays more likely to receive up to four daily visits from state-funded home help, supported by family care.
This isn’t always ideal—services are almost routinely stretched and underfunded—but it’s often cheaper and allows people to stay relatively independent and remain in familiar surroundings. Madrid’s plan is thus an urban counterpart of a general shift in provision that has already long been underway.
Don’t expect Madrid to turn into a senior hippy commune anytime soon, however. The scheme’s scope is intentionally narrow. Only older citizens living in specific conditions would be eligible for the scheme, which would be entirely voluntary. To become a host for new senior roommates, applicants would have to own their own homes and have space to share that is in good condition. Prospective elder roommates, meanwhile, would need to be either rental tenants or live in a self-owned home that is in poor condition.
It’s also fair to say that the scheme may not yet be fully thought through. The incentive remains rather meager: free tickets to cultural events. That sounds like a good way of helping to keep older citizens cheerful, but will it be enough to entice someone to share their home? Still, a future where senior citizens live together informally in standard houses and apartments rather than nursing facilities seems like a good, humane direction for cities to head in.