Nonprofit based in Lagos pairs those who need affordable housing with older people who need help and have a spare room at home
The population undeniably hit the hardest by the pandemic has been the elderly, not just in terms of illness, but also in terms of isolation amid measures aimed at protecting them from unnecessary health risks.
But even before the pandemic, the elderly in Portugal – about half a million of whom live on their own – were at risk for loneliness, depression and other medical-related health issues that arise when they have no one close by to help look after them.
Though Portugal has the third-oldest elderly population in Europe, it also is the EU country that invests the least in elderly care and services, according to Joyce Craveiro, a Lagos-based entrepreneur who recently formed a nonprofit called Lar no Lar (Home at Home) to help change this scenario.
Lar no Lar is a co-habitation service in which elderly people are paired with like-minded younger ones who can share their homes, providing company and help with every-day chores that enables the older person to better maintain his or her independence and quality of life.
Craveiro hopes the nonprofit will serve the needs of both elderly people with a spare room in their homes as well as those of people in various socio-economic situations for whom more affordable rent is an attractive proposition.
The idea is to form a contract between the two parties in which an older person offers a room for rent below market rate in exchange for eight to 10 hours of help per week, she said in a recent Zoom interview.
The parties are paired in such a way that their interests and ideals align and the elderly person receives someone willing to provide them with the specific help they’re seeking, whether it’s cooking, shopping or help in the garden.
“What we are trying to do here is to actively look for people who are trustworthy and looking to match these people in a way in which there is an agreement that goes on,” Craveiro said.
While these types of cohabitation agreements have existed informally for years, Lar no Lar aims to provide structure and support for a sustainable programme around home shares that can also relieve some of the burden of the public sector to provide affordable housing to those who need it, she said.
“Elderly people, generally speaking, live in houses that are bigger than what they need because their children have moved on and they tend to stay at home,” Craveiro said. “They have that extra space. So it’s tapping into that potential. For the government, it’s helping supply affordable housing in a cheaper way and with far greater social integration than if they were to build new, affordable housing.”
And while initially it may seem that the partnership is based on practical and financial considerations, it has the opportunity to become so much more and benefit both parties equally, she said.
On that point, Craveiro ought to know, as she was inspired to form Lar no Lar for two key reasons. One was because she saw her father, who passed away in 2018, living alone as he battled cancer and isolation in the last years of his life.
Craveiro – who was born in Mozambique but raised in Portugal – was living and working as an interior designer in London at the time, and she would often fly back and forth to help her father in Faro deal with practical considerations. Though she was living far away, the responsibility still fell mainly on her shoulders to make sure he would keep his doctor’s appointments, receive the medical treatment he needed and even eat regular meals.
While exploring possibilities to help him from afar – such as having meals delivered to his door – Craveiro found that these solutions can also exacerbate the emotional and psychological problems that her father and many elderly people face.
“He wasn’t eating properly not because he couldn’t cook but [because] he lost his appetite because he was depressed,” she explained. “So, having meals delivered at home didn’t solve the isolation issue.”
In fact, it actually made the situation worse, because he might decline if a friend asked him to go to lunch, or he would no longer go to the market to do his shopping, cutting him off even from basic social interaction, Craveiro said. “So it actually backfired in that regard,” she said.
The other inspiration for Lar no Lar came from her own experience in London, where she lived from 2013 to 2020. A year and a half of that time she cohabitated with an octogenarian named Douglas, who she met through a home-sharing programme.
Douglas in his professional life had been an artist in various media, and Craveiro herself studied art and still paints in addition to being an interior designer. Because of this similar interest – as well as Douglas’ enthusiasm and zest for life despite being afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease – she said she was delighted when the service provided him as a potential match, and he chose her to move into his spare room.
While Craveiro had some required duties to fulfill – Douglas requested frequent company for dinner and needed help shopping for groceries – their relationship expanded beyond these contracted tasks and the two became good friends, she said.
They would go to dinner and to art galleries together, and Craveiro even took the initiative to seek out an organisation that arranges concerts for people with dementia, accompanying Douglas to the events.
And while the 85-year-old clearly benefitted from the arrangement, Joyce, too, found friendship and a sense of community that, until she met Douglas, her time in London had lacked.
Having lived and been a business owner in Lagos for such a long time – where, she joked, people often know you too well so much so that you can be the topic of gossip if you “misbehave” – London’s feeling of social isolation despite having so many people around came as a bit of a shock.
“I was really missing that connection and feeling that I belonged somewhere and I had a happy place or that I belonged to a community,” Craveiro said. “That was one of my main motivations to do this.”
Change in direction
When the pandemic hit, Craveiro returned to Portugal in early 2020 for what she thought would be a three-week stay but turned into her moving back to Lagos for good. Since she wasn’t working at the time, she decided to focus on forming a home-sharing service in the Algarve similar to the one she used in London.
After some digging, Craveiro did find some programmes similar to her idea for Lar no Lar in Portugal, though they have limitations on the types of people who can participate – mainly that they cater to university students, she said.
They also often impose curfews on the students – a limitation Craveiro thinks is unnecessary if the elderly person didn’t mind staying home alone at night – and leave the elderly person without help in the summer when students typically are not on campus.
Her idea with Lar no Lar is to expand such a programme to make it open to anyone who wants to participate so long as they pass the background check and comprehensive vetting and pairing process – which ensures that neither party has a criminal record and that they share similar interests, values and even sometimes religious beliefs.
It also aims to provide regular check-ins with both partners to ensure each other’s needs are being appropriately met and they have the support they need to continue the cohabitation.
While likely rental candidates for Lar no Lar still include students, they also can include people in demographics such as a single parent who could also use the company, if the elderly person is open to such an arrangement, Craveiro said.
“Lar no Lar doesn’t want to make assumptions about what the older person wants from the tenant,” she explained. “He or she may benefit from having a child around them, and how wonderful it would be for the single parent not to be alone as well. I like the idea of expanding it so that more people can benefit from this.”
That said, Lar no Lar’s initial partner is the Universidade do Algarve and its Social Education and Social Sciences programmes, touting the service as an affordable housing option for university students. And while the nonprofit is currently targeting the Algarve, eventually the programme can also expand to other parts of the country, Craveiro said.
Craveiro stressed that the programme offers no guarantees that appropriate matches will be made – as often there are more people seeking housing than elderly who apply to share their homes.
However, she hopes it will be a good start to solving the elderly-care problem in Portugal so older members of the population can remain independent, active and vital members of society longer.
www.larnolar.org | Facebook: Lar no Lar
By ELIZABETH MONTALBANO