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‘I moved in with a pensioner for cheap rent – I didn’t bargain on the social benefits’

Joan (L) and Ausra photographed at their home in Oxford
Joan, 92, first heard about the possibility of taking in a young housemate at her local church – Aušra, 25, now lives with her - John Lawrence

During 2020 I moved in with a widow 50 years my senior. To be clear, my arrangement with Winnie, 85, was a strictly platonic affair.

I was motivated by two things: a belief that an older person is no more likely to be unbearable than a younger one and, crucially, the prospect of paying just £150 a month in rent in London.

Winnie and I were matched by Share and Care, part of the Homeshare UK network, which pairs up younger lodgers looking for affordable housing with an older homeowner in need of help around the house.

Typically, the lodger does around 10 hours a week of household chores. In return, they’ll pay just £150 a month in rent – which is about £1,000 less than the UK average, which increased by 8.3pc last year, according to Zoopla. For that small amount of rent, I took over the top rooms of a seven-bedroom Victorian house near Wimbledon Common.

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Homesharing can provide the lodger with some financial breathing space, and give the householder some practical support – plus the benefit of knowing that another person is in the house. Lodgers share not just a living space with the homeowner, but often have meals together and socialise.

My time living with Winnie was a nourishing one. She taught me about the paintings of Joseph Wright and how to make marmalade. In return, I showed her how to order a new recycling bin. It was a mutually beneficial set-up that resulted in a strong friendship.

While this set-up remains far from mainstream, the number of people from different generations becoming housemates climbed 5pc in the last year.

Here, we meet three older homeowners and their younger lodgers to learn what it’s like to share your home with a stranger from a different generation.

‘It’s been a life-changer’

Gemma Webb and Michael McIntyre photographed at Michaels home in Oxfordshire
Gemma and Michael both benefit financially from home sharing but have found social advantages too - John Lawrence

Michael and Gemma, Cotswolds

Michael, 77, is an expert in Chinese medicine, while Gemma, 33, is both an equine osteopathy student and a part-time estate agent. After suffering a stroke a few years ago, Michael had little choice but to recruit a live-in carer. The expense drained his savings and he was eventually forced to seek an alternative.

“This was when the council proposed the homesharing scheme, as a supplement to the carers that pop in every day,” he says. “They put me in touch with Homeshare Gloucestershire, who introduced me to Gemma.”

Remembering that first meeting, Gemma compares it to “a weird blind date”, albeit one that culminated in Michael agreeing to put in a cat flap. “That sealed the deal,” she says.

An ability to empathise is at the heart of a successful homeshare – especially after midnight. Gemma says: “There was a time when I had to tell Michael to turn down his music at two in the morning!” Michael’s defence was that it was actually Pink Floyd making all the noise.

Homesharing has also given Gemma a new sense of resilience. She says: “It all happened at once: new home, new job, new living set up… But I’ve coped. And one of the reasons I’ve coped is because it’s genuinely comforting having another person around.”

The financial side of the arrangement has been far less significant for Michael than for Gemma. “For me it’s far more about the social gain than the financial gain,” says Michael.

“It makes sense to share. To share the heat, to share the food, to share a home. We recently collaborated on a vegan moussaka. My recipe, Gemma’s tweaks. It was a triumph.”

For Gemma, though, the money-saving element has been undeniably significant. “I work part-time as an estate agent. I see the prices,” she says.

“You’re looking at £800 for a one-bed studio in Swindon, before any bills. Living with Michael has allowed me to study as well as work. It’s been a life-changer.”

Michael feels that the homesharing initiative could even help bridge the intergenerational divide.

“Any gap or division between people isn’t useful or healthy,” he says. “Older and younger people need to rub along together. It’s a potential problem for society if they don’t. The knowhow of the older generation will get lost. And when there’s a gap, or a distance, then people are more easily misunderstood. On both sides.”

‘It felt like the responsible thing to do’

Isabel Booth who lodges with Simon Duncan
From polenta to Ru Paul's Drag Race, Isabel and Simon's homesharing has led to a surprising exchange in interests - Roger Moody/Guzelian

Simon and Isabel, Saltaire, West Yorkshire

Isabel lodges with Simon in Saltaire, a Unesco World Heritage Site on the edge of Bradford. Simon, 74, is a professor emeritus at the local university, while Isabel, 21, is an illustration graduate now working in the gallery at Salt’s Mill, a colossal Victorian edifice where Titus Salt once spun a small fortune out of alpaca wool.

Simon was driven to share his home by a sense of social responsibility. He says: “It simply felt like the responsible thing to do. If you’ve got the space, then why not share it?”

Isabel, meanwhile, wanted to be closer to her workplace and to live more sociably with a housemate. “I didn’t like the individualistic style of living at university, with everybody doing their own thing. I like cooking and eating with Simon. It’s nice. It makes sense,” she explains.

Talk of cooking prompts Simon to recall an episode of ‘lumpy polenta’, which he is yet to forgive himself for. “Though on a positive note,” says Simon. “I have managed to convert Isabel to custard.”

By way of thanks, Isabel has converted Simon to reality TV. “I absolutely hate The Traitors. But I got a decent haiku out of Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” says Simon.

For Isabel, the money-saving aspect has been a big boost. “I only get a shop wage, pretty much the minimum, but because I’m spending hundreds of pounds less on rent each month, I’m actually able to save,” she says.

While Simon worried that his early mornings – a side effect of Parkinson’s – might be a disturbance for his lodger, Isabel says this has not been an issue and, if it had, she would have said so. “If a homeshare is going to work out it’s vital that neither party suffers in silence,” she says. “If there is a problem, you’ve got to say something.”

The experience has made Simon very enthusiastic about homesharing. “I think it should be rolled out as part of local authority policy. Not enforced, not required, but promoted at least. All these half-empty houses and people alone, and people priced out of decent accommodation – it’s ridiculous.”

‘I’d have to spend a lot more on support if Aušra wasn’t around’

Joan (L) and Ausra photographed at their home in Oxford
Aušra (r) helps Joan with chores and errands as part of the homesharing arrangement - John Lawrence

Joan and Aušra, Oxford

Joan, 92, was brought up in Croydon but has lived in Oxford for most of her life. Aušra, 25, recently moved to the city after a period studying and working as an au pair in London.

Aušra “stumbled across” Homeshare Oxfordshire while searching for alternative living arrangements online, while Joan says she was tipped off at a local community lunch.

“I just thought, why not?” explains Joan. “If it doesn’t work out then so be it. I like young people. I didn’t want a kind, middle-aged woman who was going to pat me on the head.

“My preference was for a young academic so I could have good discussions. Aušra recently bought me a great book, and I can’t wait to talk with her about it.”

Aušra says that the key to a successful homesharing experience is having clear expectations, but also a willingness to compromise.

As well as good old-fashioned chat, the pair have bonded over Sherlock Holmes, which they watch in the living room together. “We’re addicted,” confesses Joan. “The other day we were so engrossed that the bacon burnt!”

It’s not all sitting around watching the telly though; there’s a more arduous side to the arrangement too. “I do get Aušra to put the bins out”, says Joan. “And I’ll ask her to do any shopping I’ve forgotten. There are always little errands that need doing.” Aušra mentions she popped into town to get Joan’s phone fixed after it stopped working. “And I also mended the radio,” she adds.

Despite the chores Aušra has become very fond of her housemate. “Joan is energetic and has a great sense of humour. She’s empathetic and has a sharp brain and is so positive, so full of life. She’s inspiring.”

On a personal level, Joan and Aušra’s cohabitation appears to have been a success, but it has also proved advantageous on a financial level.

Joan says: “I’d have to spend a lot more on outside support if Aušra wasn’t around. Not for my personal care, but for cooking and for tidying up, things like that. I nearly fell over recently but Aušra was there to stop me from toppling.”

Joan recalls a time when she was worried that her younger companion may have been the one falling over when she heard a series of loud bangs coming from her bedroom. “I was really worried until I realised it was just Aušra doing her yoga.”

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