Loneliness and community living
The astonishingly high rates of loneliness in this country, particularly amongst our older age population have been prevalent in the media of late. Shocking statistics note that lacking social connections is as great a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Monbiot, 2014); twice as deadly as obesity and can increase the chance of premature death by 14% in the most extreme of cases (Age UK, 2014). At the same time it is believed that loneliness amongst younger people – those 18-34 years old – is thought to be an even greater problem, as services don’t exist to cater to this age group in the same way they do for children or, although being increasingly threatened with closure, for older people. Last year the office for National Statistics found Britain to be the loneliness capital of Europe (Gil, 2014). Humans are social beings which is evidenced by the presence of their large neocortex, a part of the brain involved in higher social cognition, which makes us ‘hard-wired’ for interacting with others (Vrticka, 2013). So, when the doors are closed on our streets; the 6” fences erected around our homes; people absorbed in the world of mobile phones and other technology and the individual and individualism taking over from the sense of community and interdependency, the risk of losing what it means to be social, increases, with a loss of community and loneliness in its wake.
It’s true that although there has been a slight resurgence in community life, with the street party craze, the increasing popularity of allotment ownership (there are year+ waiting lists in London) and farmer’s markets, the focus in our society is almost entirely on the individual. In addition to this, people are; working longer hours, often with less pay; struggling to afford to buy houses, often forcing them out of their preferred location and splitting families; and struggling to manage extended work hours and rising childcare costs. Maybe it’s partly because nobody has the time or energy to think of anyone else as they’re all too busy trying to keep on top of their own lives, that there has been a decline in neighbourliness, community living and general friendliness. It’s not that we don’t care about people, with Britain leading the way amongst other developed nations in giving to worthwhile causes, but it doesn’t currently feel like ‘we’re all in this together’, even though most of us are sharing the burden in some capacity.
‘The old and young must unite to solve the problems facing Brittan’ Stephen Burke has confidently stated (2014), despite some of the media efforts to damage these relationships within communities and between generations. The latest focus has honed in on older people taking up much needed multiple bedroom properties when first time buyers are struggling to purchase their first homes. However a new wave of living is gaining popularity within Europe which is addressing these fractions and rebuilding that sense of true community living. Multigenerational housing, Intergenerational living, community living and cohousing projects are all possible tonics to these problems.
A scheme in the Netherlands enables students to live rent free in a retirement home in exchange for 30 hours of their time to be given to some of the older residents in the home. In Germany, the introduction of Mehrgenerationenhaus (the multigenerational house) in 2003, sees older people, young children and adults coming together in centres which cater for all. The older attendees volunteer to read stories to the children and offer child minding services to the exhausted parents. Teenagers offer to teach the older attendees technology skills whilst all benefit from company. And closer to home, The Threshold Cohousing community in Dorset which consists of 14 dwellings half of which are affordable rent and shared ownership. They are based around a community market garden and common house and living is based on community and green principles.
Perhaps the major difficulties with these types of schemes is each individual being able to adopt and adapt to a true community spirit away from the independent lifestyles that they are more familiar with. Of course this way of living will not suit all and although architects and town planners would be wise to consider options such as this for future housing developments, choice should still be offered to all. However, the focus on more community style living can be framed as the rebuilding of family-like links which can contribute greatly to fighting isolation, loneliness and vulnerability whist also respecting the private life of each individual.
Age UK (2014) Local Age UKs awarded £21m in funding from the Big Lottery Fund to combat loneliness Available from http://www.ageuk.org.uk/latest-news/big-lottery-fund-backs-local-age-uks-beat-loneliness/ [22nd December 2014]
Burke, Stephen (2014) Old and young people must unite to solve the problems facing Britain. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jul/21/old-young-people-unite-solve-problems [22nd December 2014]
Gill, Natalie (2014) Loneliness: a silent plague that is hurting young people most. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/20/loneliness-britains-silent-plague-hurts-young-people-most [23rd December 2014]
Monbiot, G (2014) The age of loneliness is killing us Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/14/age-of-loneliness-killing-us [23rd December 2014]
Vrticka, Pascal (2013) Evolution of the Social Brain’ in humans. What are the benefits and costs of belonging to a social species? Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pascal-vrticka/human-social-development_b_3921942.html [23rd December 2014]