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Could This Swedish City’s 'Radical Experiment in Multigenerational Living' Combat Loneliness in the U.S.?

Oct 28, 2020 by Maurie Backman
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Loneliness isn't just something country singers croon about; it's a real social and health issue, especially among the elderly. Close to 25% of U.S. adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and for a lot of reasons -- not having a job to socialize at, living alone, and the loss of family and friends. On a basic level, loneliness can lead to mental health issues. Digging deeper, it can actually lead to physical health issues as well.

One Swedish city is trying to combat loneliness among seniors via a radical living experiment. The question is: Could it work in the U.S. as well?

Helping the elderly avoid isolation

Last November, Helsingborg, a small port city in southern Sweden, introduced Sallbo, a radical experiment in multigenerational living consisting of 51 apartments spread over four floors of a revamped retirement home. More than half of the home's 72 residents are over the age of 70. The remaining residents? They're between the ages of 18 and 25.

To be a part of the housing experiment, applicants had to undergo a detailed interview process to ensure a diverse and appropriate mix of backgrounds, values, and personalities. And here's the kicker: To be a Sallbo resident, all applicants had to sign a contract promising to spend a minimum of two hours per week socializing with their neighbors.

In some ways, Sweden is the perfect setting for such an experiment. Swedes are known to start living independently at young ages -- in fact, young people there start living alone earlier than anywhere in Europe. That trend tends to continue into old age due to public policy and services that make it easy for the elderly to age in their own homes. But those same seniors risk social isolation -- and the dangers that go along with it -- the same way U.S. seniors do, so Sallbo was introduced in an attempt to target the issue of loneliness.

So far, it seems to be working. Residents reportedly get along quite well, and there are activities and speciality spaces, like a gym, library, and lounge, designed to promote mingling. And while the concept is fairly new, if it proves successful, we may see similar multigenerational housing arrangements pop up in different corners of the globe.

Could Sallbo work in the U.S.?

Multigenerational living is already a much-embraced practice in the U.S. As of 2016, there were 64 million multigenerational U.S. households. But those households are self-created, consisting largely of folks who are related. Sallbo is an entirely different concept -- strangers from different generations are brought together to reside under the same roof.

While it's possible such an experiment could happen in the U.S., there would be some hurdles. First, the Fair Housing Act prohibits age discrimination in housing, so that would need to be worked around. That said, there are already some exceptions in place, like the 55-and-over communities we see increasingly popping up throughout the country. As such, it's possible that exemptions could be created on a limited basis to allow for the U.S. counterpart to Sallbo. Still, that project would need to be funded, and it's not immediately clear whose purview it would fall under. But it's something for U.S. real estate investors to keep an eye on.

The bottom line

Many seniors prefer to live independently as they age, and many are in strong enough physical shape to do so. Creating a housing setup where the elderly can enjoy their freedom while avoiding isolation could solve a huge portion of our nation's mental health crisis. That alone is reason enough to hope a comparable idea is at least introduced here at some point in the future.

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