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Italian social protection expenditure dedicates several resources to old age. However, welfare services are not sufficient anymore for satisfying the large and complex demand of the aging population. It is consequently urgent to think about alternatives in diverse sectors, such as the housing policies one, where proposals such as cohousing could have a very positive outcome but still aren’t well-known. What is cohousing and which viability can it have in Italy?

The reasons

Demographically speaking, Italy is one of the oldest countries in Europe. The percentage of elderly people in our society is rapidly rising due, principally, to low birth rates, baby-boomers’ aging and the advance of life expectancy. Contemporarily, the “new old age” challenges the traditional approach (that sees the net shift from independence to dependency) and, being a process of gradual loss of autonomy, it requires to be reflected in housing services.

Under this type of pressure, Italian welfare needs to be reformed for at least three reasons. First of all, in regards to public spending and to services’ organization. Social policies represent a mix of several measures (Old age, Health, Social Inclusion, etc.). However, in Italy, more than half of public social expenditure is dedicated to the support of old age only. Italy is among the European countries with the highest expenditure for old age and among those with the lowest one for families and childhood (Eurostat 2015). Moreover, allocated resources are numerous but not efficiently spent. Support for old age is mainly implemented through monetary benefits (such as pensions, attendance allowance, etc.) and less through the offer of services. In the years to come, social expenditure will need to be refined and, most likely, allocated resources for old age will be contracted. Consequently, old age welfare services will be rethought.

Secondly, increased life expectancy will augment the need of services responding to dependency and disability: today, 18,5% of people with more than 65 years old (2,1 million of people) lack autonomy in at least one of the instrumental activities of daily living. Families that present at least one member with functional limitations represent the 11%, but among these, less than 20% receive public home care assistance (Istat 2014). This means that families satisfy their needs alone, by drawing on their savings or becoming themselves caregivers for elderly relatives.

This brings us to our third issue. Can we imagine that, in a future, families and more precisely women, will be able to sustain caregiving burdens efficaciously in the same way as they have done until today? Probably not. Changes in family and social structures will impose to satisfy sociality and care needs outside the family. Determinant factors involve the rising number of women employed in working activities (considering extended and flexible working hours); the advance of primiparous women’s age, women who, caring for their aging parents while supporting their own children, will need to compress the time dedicated to parents. Moreover, it is important not to underestimate young people emigration which physically furthers generations away (in 2014 only, we experienced 101.297 expatriations, among which 35,8% were people between 18 and 34 years old, Fondazione Migrantes). On this regard, it will be necessary to strengthen work-life balance policies, to foresee services able to ease women’s care burden and to guarantee the same efficacy and sensibility for the cure of the Elderly.


Cohousing: What is it?

It is hard to define what cohousing is, given the variability the concept assumes in different countries. We can identify some basic characteristics:

  • the “social dimension” of the applied measures, that can be performed in different forms: communal spaces for socialization; structures with shared services and facilities (ex. welfare services, home care assistance for elderly and disabled people, afterschool, babysitting, etc); direct and active involvement of residents in the planning, implementation and maintenance phases of housing projects; enlargement of services provision from residents to neighbours (community development);
  • cohabitation between social heterogeneous groups which can possibly involve people at risk of social exclusions (elderly people, single parents, young people);
  • in contrast to Italian public owned houses – where the economic dimension still prevails and which aim is to offer an accommodation to low income people – cohousing focuses on the possibility of benefit from certain services or on the commitment to create a new way of living. Especially in some countries cohousers are mostly well off people;
  • involvement of a variety of actors both in financing and managing cohousing programs, ranging from local authorities and public companies to non-profit or limited-profit associations and companies, cooperatives and, in some cases, even private for profit developers and investors.


Advantages and results

Introducing cohousing for elderly people could imply numerous advantages, such as health care systems’ innovation thanks to practices of co-care which are able to solve less complex care-demanding problems. For this reason, senior cohousing is increasingly encouraged by north-european governments that, in this way, find efficient solutions for assistancial problems (Moretti 2010). Even if they do not replace the role of specialists, cohousers can support each other in difficult moments. Moreover, by optimizing specialist resources (doctors, nurses, caregivers, etc), it is possible to generate scale economies and therefore savings for both structures’ managers and tenants since demands can be aggregated.

We are talking about a paradigmatic change in terms of services’ provision to elderly people since it confronts the problem from another perspective, promoting ex-ante actions towards the potential disease, in order to reduce the costs of healing measures.

By favoring community engagement, cohousing also promotes active ageing and social inclusion of elderly people, especially of those who, after retiring, risk to loose their sense of belonging.

Moreover, thanks to the public-private-non profit partnership described above, it can represent a means through which measures’ and projects’ sustainability can be strengthened.


Limits to the diffusion of senior cohousing in Italy

Despite the evident advantages, cohousing is limitedly diffused among elderly people in Italy. Cultural obstacles represent a barrier that has prevented the measure to develop, especially in Italy where traditional family models are still importantly valued. Indeed, socialization and care almost exclusively take shape within families and accommodation models remain majorly classic: elderly people generally don’t like living with other people, dislike sharing spaces and objects and tend to be reluctant in changing house or neighborhood.

Nonetheless, it is reasonable to believe that in the years to come, such a trend could change. This could be the result of a necessity: changes within familiar and social structures will impose to look for care and socialization even externally to the familiar nucleus. This is also partially due to cultural reasons: the elderly of the future will probably be more informed and open minded towards new welfare services – among which cohousing – and will better understand their positive outcomes thus how to profit the most.

Housing and welfare policies’ innovation is going through a cultural change that needs to be promoted among citizens and among private and institutional investors, in order to give birth to a ‘pioneering phase’ founded upon private initiatives and upon the involvement of local group, systems, and communities in which innovative projects can be experimented.
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