'It makes my life bigger': The win-win of Ricky and Josh's homesharing arrangement

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Ricky Buchanan spends her days and nights in a hospital bed in either her bedroom or living area.

She is bedridden with a severe form of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. While she has carers to help with things like cooking and cleaning, her disability makes it extremely difficult to keep in touch with the outside world.

"I can't go out anywhere," Buchanan explains. "I get really socially isolated."

Two weeks ago, chemistry student Josh Van Dijk began living with Buchanan in her inner-Melbourne home. Van Dijk lives in a spare room, rent free, in exchange for spending time with Buchanan.

The two – who share common interests in politics, technology and the internet – talk about their days and thoughts. Van Dijk is also able to do odd jobs that carers may not be able to do, such as take Buchanan's iPhone to the Apple store to be fixed. Or buy a birthday present for a friend.

"It just makes my life bigger," Buchanan explains. "It just makes my life better in so many ways."

For Van Dijk, the arrangement has also enabled him to move out of home and live close to university, after previously being disheartened by the cost of renting in the city.

Buchanan and Van Dijk were matched through a local homeshare program, which supports people with disabilities and older Australians to stay in their homes. Under a homeshare arrangement, a householder provides a bedroom and shared facilities, while the homesharer provides about 10 hours a week of help. It could be cooking, cleaning, shopping or gardening, as well as the security of having someone else around the house, particularly at night.

In a joint submission to the aged care royal commission, progressive think tank the Australia Institute and the Homeshare Australia and New Zealand Alliance are calling on the federal government to incorporate homesharing into the National Disability Insurance Scheme and MyAgedCare (the federal government's aged care services).

The submission describes the arrangement as a "win-win". It means older or disabled Australians can stay in their homes, while others get access to stable and affordable accommodation in a tough housing market.

The call comes after the aged care royal commission heard heartbreaking evidence of what it is like for some people to live in aged care facilities.

Recently, 84-year-old Victorian aged care resident Merle Mitchell told the royal commission she lost privacy, control and connection to her local community when she moved into an aged care home.

"I live in an institution. No matter how many times they tell us it's our home, it's not ... I have to follow what the institution wants – the time to get up, the time to have meals. You lose your choice totally ... I haven't got my own things around me. I can no longer reach out and grab an atlas if I hear something on the news, or my favourite book," she said.

Homeshare programs have been operating in Australia for about 20 years, but only in small, isolated pockets. Homeshare Australia director Beris Campbell said funding insecurity had been a persistent problem. "There hasn't been a recognised funding stream," she said.

Ms Campbell said while it was complex to bring strangers together under the one roof – and then continue to monitor and support the arrangement – homesharing could be "life-changing. It is so worthwhile".

Australia Institute research director Rod Campbell said homesharing had "huge potential" to reduce loneliness and improve the lives of older and disabled Australians.

"With a bit of political will, I think it is fairly straightforward," he said.

The National Disability Insurance Agency said some NDIS participants were already choosing homeshare arrangements as part of their individual plans.

"The NDIA is exploring ways to make this option available to more people, if that is the participant's preferred option," a spokesperson said.

The federal government also already provides some funding and services to help older Australians stay at home. This includes the Commonwealth Home Support Program, which provides basic support, and the Home Care Packages Program, which helps frail older people.