In a world where loneliness and isolation seep into the lives of many, an innovative scheme is bringing together older people with those seeking accommodation. Here, Kathryn Wheeler meets a household who made the move, to find out why it works for them
On an extraordinarily cold Thursday evening, I park my car outside a home on the outskirts of Oxford. I’m here to meet with Mary, 85, and Alex, 31, two people taking part in Age UK Oxfordshire’s Homeshare – a scheme that matches older people who are looking for help or companionship in their homes, with another person who can lend a hand, and who is in need of affordable accommodation.
I’m led into the sitting room by Maria, Mary’s daughter, where I meet Marian from Age UK Oxfordshire, as well as Mary and Alex themselves. The five of us sit around a warming fire, Max the dog delighted by the company, while Alex and Mary relay yesterday evening’s outing; a concert at the school Alex’s sister works at.
Mary and Alex are one of the 50 matches between ‘Householders’ and ‘Sharers’ that Age UK Oxfordshire has supported in the past three years. To be part of the scheme, the Householder pays from £150 per month, and the Sharer pays £200, the split in bills is then worked out between the household. Each arrangement comes with a minimum nine-month commitment, but many last much longer – the longest in the county now approaching the five-year mark. It’s a forward-thinking arrangement, but the set-up of sharing a home isn’t completely new to Mary.
“I used to have a lot of students living with me, this is when my husband was alive,” Mary, a former music teacher, tells me later, when the two of us sit down together. And, she explains, she heard about Homeshare some time before she took steps to take part herself. “Someone told me about Homeshare, and then Marian came along. It was a couple of years after we’d first met that I decided to join the scheme. After my husband died, and his carer left – I didn’t mind being by myself in the house during the day, but I didn’t like it at night. That’s when I decided. I’m very glad, it’s been very reassuring.”
As you would expect, a rigorous vetting and prepping process pre-dates any match, all overseen by a team of two: Marian and her colleague Vicki. Applications, interviews, DBS checks, references, home visits, meetings – introductions between Sharers, Householders, and their families – and ongoing support, are all vital pillars for the success and safety of the scheme.
“I came to Homeshare at a point when I was really struggling with my mental health,” Alex shares. “It instantly appealed to me. I really liked the possibility of providing support to someone, but also, perhaps, being the recipient of some support as well. I felt there was a mutuality to it,” he says.
From there, Alex got in touch with Marian, and was invited to a Homeshare Oxfordshire lunchtime social. Here, he met Mary and Maria for the first time – and, after a second meeting in Mary’s home, the match was made. Four weeks later, Alex moved in with Mary for a trial period.
“I’ve been here a little over eight weeks now, but it feels like I’ve been here very much longer – it feels like I’ve gained a family. Something that struck me was, within two days of living here, I could sit in the kitchen and read a book, and Mary could sit in the kitchen and read a book, and there was no atmosphere, it was very ordinary. I remember Mary having her newspaper on her lap, reading me funny stories; and, equally, we were very happy to sit quietly. That meant the world to me, because it was very homely. We just clicked.”
Though precisely how it looks will vary from household to household, Sharers commit to 10 hours of help around the home, an important guideline for sustaining one of the key purposes of the scheme, to provide support to the Householder. While that may sound a little regimented, the reality is entirely more natural.
“I tend to cook maybe three or four times a week, and if I’m not doing the main course I might prepare a salad or a pudding. I’m in most evenings, with some exceptions, but we normally have a meal together five or six times out of seven. And then I quite like going to the shops with her, because she’s quite a meticulous shopping list writer. And things like helping with the driving, or just carrying the bags to the car, are things that Mary would struggle with, and are things that are quite effortless for me.
“I love that I’m able to make her a cup of tea, or boil the kettle to give her a hot water bottle in the evening, because I know little things make a difference, and they cost me nothing. Equally, there have been times when Mary has made me a cup of tea, and I’ve really valued that.”
To me, the whole arrangement sounds very easy.
“Well, it is easy!” Mary says, when I put this to her. “You learn, when you’re older, to take things as they come. I’ve had a full life, and he is a remarkably nice young man.”
I ask Mary then, what the most surprising thing about Alex has been? She takes a long pause to think, and then she leans in. “He likes doing embroidery.
“I’ve lent him a book on different stitches. He’s found that tent stitch is one of the nicer stitches, so versatile. If it wasn’t for the fact I have bad arthritis, I would do a lot more. It’s a b*gger getting old, it really is.”
To my delight, Mary then shows me some of her work. Above the stairs, she points to a wall hanging she created. It’s based on the design of German weaver Gunta Stölzl, who wove it as a carpet.
“It was one of the few things that survived, because she had to escape to Switzerland,” Mary tells me. “And I looked at it, and I thought, I’m going to sew that.”
Her home really is a handcrafter’s dream. She shows me piece after piece of framed embroidery, each with its own personality – some with juicy-coloured metallic threads and delicate beads, the wall hanging made with wool. Alex then shows me his own embroidery, including his current project, which is being worked on to canvas.
“The embroidery is a lovely thread that runs through our relationship,” Alex says. “Mary has never made me feel funny as a man doing embroidery. I think there are some people who would find that funny, but I’ve found it’s been great for my mental health. I know that Mary and I can be sitting at the table, and I’ll be working on something, and there are some stitches that I can’t do without her help, and they just come to her instinctively because she’s had a lifetime of practice.”
In a country like the UK, with an ageing population – and in cities like Oxford, where average wages and average house prices just don’t match up – and, need it be said, with waves of people struggling with loneliness, doesn’t a homely arrangement like this just make sense?
“Without wanting to get on a soap box, I would love to see more investment by both local and national government, to enable more people like Mary and me to come together,” Alex says. “I would love to see a Homeshare in every county, rather than a patchwork of brilliance in a sea of lonely people.”
Mary and Alex’s dinner – carbonara, with treacle tart for pudding – is calling. But, before I go, as I did before, I put to Alex: What’s been the most surprising thing about Mary?
“I think Mary is wonderfully witty,” he says. “And I think Mary is endlessly funny. I think she has lived the most incredible life, and experienced really difficult things and borne them really well. I think she’s a wonderful storyteller, I think she’s a remarkable cook. And there are moments when Mary will laugh and smile, and it’s just the most incredible thing to be a part of.”
With one final reminder from Mary to experiment with my own handcrafting, I leave the household, and begin the drive home. As a final reflection, it’s only right that I turn my favourite question on myself: What was the most surprising thing about Mary and Alex? Well, as adults, it’s not often that we have the opportunity to make new connections, connections that thrive in life’s quiet moments, just as much as they do for its main events. By doing something that has come so naturally to all of them, Mary and Alex, and the whole of the Homeshare Oxfordshire team, are proving that, when you bring down barriers, and decide to do things differently, wonderful things can happen. And when it’s right, it couldn’t be easier.
Homeshare Oxfordshire is run by ageukoxfordshire.org.uk and is a member of the national network homeshareuk.org. The service is greatly helped by donations, and you can support them at justgiving.com/campaign/homeshare or contact them at homeshareoxfordshire.org.uk.