‘It’s like family’: the housing experiment designed to cure loneliness

A radical new scheme in Sweden offers homes to different ages and backgrounds – and insists that they (safely) mingle

Sällbo is a radical experiment in multigenerational living in Helsingborg, a small port city in southern Sweden.

Sällbo is a radical experiment in multigenerational living in Helsingborg, a small port city in southern Sweden.

 

Erik Ahlsten is unequivocal: “this is the best accommodation I’ve ever had.” His friend and neighbour Manfred Bacharach is equally enthusiastic: “I really like this way of living, it’s very much my cup of tea.”

The two are referring to their new home, Sällbo, a radical experiment in multigenerational living in Helsingborg, a small port city in southern Sweden. Its name is a portmanteau of the Swedish words for companionship (sällskap) and living (bo), and neatly encapsulates the project’s goals – to combat loneliness and promote social cohesion by giving residents incentives, and the spaces, for productive interaction.

Sällbo, which opened last November, consists of 51 apartments spread over four floors of a refurbished retirement home. More than half of the 72 residents are over-70s, like Ahlsten and Bacharach; the rest are aged 18-25. All were selected after an extensive interview process to ensure a mix of personalities, backgrounds, religions, and values, and all had to sign a contract promising to spend at least two hours a week socialising with their neighbours.

“A new way to live,” proclaims Sällbo’s website boldly, adding that it’s where “generations and cultures meet, with social life in the centre”. The project is administered by Helsingsborgshem, a not-for-profit housing company funded by the city council, and stems from an idea they had in 2016 amid concern about loneliness among older groups. Swedes are fiercely independent – young people start living alone earlier than anywhere in Europe – a trait that continues into old age; thanks to public policy and a wide range of municipal services many elderly people opt to remain in their own homes.

Yet a sense of isolation poses a real “danger to health”, according to the Karolinska Institute and remains prevalent among retirees. “Our research showed that elderly people were feeling isolated from society, and were very lonely in their everyday life,” says Dragana Curovic, project manager at Sällbo. “They were only mixing with others of the same age.”

At the same time, the 2015 refugee crisis meant organisations like Helsingsborgshem were under pressure to house growing numbers of people who were struggling to integrate with – and win acceptance from – Swedish society. So a plan was hatched to mix the two, with younger Swedish people acting “as a bridge”.

“They are closer in age to the refugees, but closer in terms of culture and language to the older people,” says Curovic. “We hoped they would bring them together.”

Although less than a year old, and despite the complications of a pandemic, the arrangement seems to be working for young and old. One resident, a 92-year-old former teacher, has been giving English lessons. Ahlsten and Bacharach have been cooking communal dinners, doing repairs and odd jobs, and driving people around; Bacharach taught one resident, an Afghan refugee, how to drive. In return, the younger residents help with modern technology and social media, and how to find information online.

“It’s a real community,” says Ahlsten, “and the mix of people works very well”. Bacharach agrees. “It’s great doing things together and enjoying other people’s company,” he says. Since moving in, he’s joined the gardening group, the Sunday night movie club, and learned to play Canasta. There are sign-up sheets in the communal areas and dedicated Facebook groups for all the various activities; just as importantly, there’s plenty of space.

Residents play cards in one of the communal areas in the Sällbo complex in Helsingborg, Sweden. Photograph: Helsingborgshem
Residents play cards in one of the communal areas in the Sällbo complex in Helsingborg, Sweden. Photograph: Helsingborgshem

There’s a gym, yoga room, a library (stocked with the residents’ own books), and a large communal kitchen on every floor. The arts-and-crafts studio is stuffed with paints, wool, and other creative paraphernalia, while the residents themselves turned one space into a workshop, complete with tools and equipment (one of the pensioners, a former sea captain, has reinvented himself as a silversmith). Even the main lounge on the ground floor is a multifunctional space, with hi-fi equipment, table football, and a piano, donated by one of the residents so that “everyone can experience its joy”; she’s hoping to give lessons.

Rent-controlled apartments

Rents vary from 4,620 (€444) to 5,850 Swedish krona per month, which is commensurate with similar-sized rent-controlled apartments in the city (private, one-bedroom rentals in the centre cost between 7,000 and 10,000 Swedish krona).

Ali Soroush (21) an Afghan refugee, and Isabel Tomak-Eriksson, a native Swede, are one of the few couples. Soroush arrived in 2015 and is one of the refugees Helsingsborgshem had in mind when conceiving of Sällbo. He says it reminds him of his own culture, with people – particularly different generations – living and socialising together, and helping each other out. “The whole building is like a family,” he says.

Of course, intergenerational living carries the risk of some tensions breaking out but, so far, they have been minimal. Helsingsborgshem appointed a full-time “host”, to act as a facilitator and moderator – to “feel the atmosphere and deflate tension” says Curovic – but they’ve had precious little do. Indeed, mutual respect and understanding has flourished; there’s been neither excessive partying, nor any pedantic carping.

“You can always just close your door and relax or sleep,” says Ahlsten. And while Tomak-Eriksson notes the responsibility everyone feels as a Sällbo resident, she says it’s far from boring. “Pre-corona, there were parties all the time. Every weekend it was someone’s birthday or some celebration, and there were always people around – everyone had lots of visitors.”

This planned “togetherness” has also stood the residents in good stead during the pandemic – the threat of the disease has curtailed many of Sällbo’s social aspects, particularly among the elderly. There have been no cases yet, but no one is taking any chances; some are self-quarantining, and those who do continue to meet up do so in smaller groups, and in bigger areas.

“Corona has changed everything, but I’ve been busy,” says Ahlsten, who’s been running errands and doing shopping for those reluctant to venture out into public. Likewise Soroush and Tomak-Eriksson: “We’ve been offering our help to those who need it,” she says. “All the young people have.” And while being vigilant, and following guidelines around distancing and hand hygiene, others are more sanguine. “Not challenging, just boring,” says Bacharach on being asked how he’s coped. “We’re just waiting for it to be over.”

Even before the pandemic, Sällbo had attracted attention both within Sweden and internationally. Three municipalities are working on directly implementing the concept, and many more considering similar ideas. A delegation from Canada visited in February, while others from Italy, Germany, and South Korea have been in touch regarding study missions.

With loneliness on the rise and considered a genuine health risk – Sweden’s largest daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter asked earlier this year if it was “a new epidemic” – projects such as Sällbo are seen increasingly as a holistic solution to isolation, over-reliance on public services, and the trend, even among older people, for increasingly unhealthy internet use (wifi is free in communal areas, but tenants have to pay extra to get online in their apartments).

“We hope that people see that youngsters from other countries are not to be feared, and that you can have totally normal relationships between youngsters, elderly and other people,” says Curovic of Sällbo’s ultimate goal. “We want that to spread to society in general, and increase the willingness to integrate. And it’s starting to happen.”

Soroush has seen this change first hand. “In my old apartment building, even after 1½ years I didn’t know any of my neighbours,” he says. “But here, from day one, you know everyone. It feels like home.” – Guardain

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