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World Changing Ideas

Can This Airbnb For Seniors Help Keep The Elderly Connected?

The Freebird Club lets older travelers mix and mingle at the homes of others over the age of 50.

Can This Airbnb For Seniors Help Keep The Elderly Connected?

Photo: Maskot/Getty Images

If you thought the sharing economy was all about young people, it may be time to revise that notion. Airbnb recently said seniors are its fastest-growing demographic (as well as its best-reviewed hosts). And studies show that people 55 and over are more likely to participate on sharing platforms than the population as a whole.

The Freebird Club, developed in Ireland, is expressly for older people. An Airbnb-like site, it aims to connect seniors with spare rooms with seniors looking to travel. But there are important differences with Airbnb, says the site's creator Peter Mangan. For one, hosts always stay and receive their guests—the idea is to promote conversation and social connections. For another, the Freebird Club is members only. You need to pay a small fee to join, and it's only for people 50 and over.

"There are two issues we're trying to address," Mangan says. "One is loneliness and isolation in the elderly population. A lot of people are finding themselves quite isolated particularly in the larger cities. The other is that a lot of people are quite asset-rich—maybe they have a mortgage-free house—but they're reliant on a [fixed income]. This is a way to monetize their assets."

Mangan, an administrator at the University of Dublin, first came up with the idea when his father hosted guests via Airbnb and felt invigorated by the experience. He's since won the European Commission's Social Innovation Competition, which came with a check of about $55,000, and moved into offices in central Dublin. Mangan plans to launch fully this June, having piloted the site in County Kerry, in Ireland, and in London.

"We really want to provide something that's fun and inspiring for older people. It provides a whole new way of traveling for them. Often they have the time, but nobody to do it with and they won't go alone. That's why it's a club and you can stay with other members," Mangan says.

The for-profit startup will focus initially on Ireland and the U.K., but Mangan sees potential in the Irish diaspora in the U.S. as well. He's promoting the site through senior organizations and paying a lot of attention, he says, to "security and trust issues" as these have potential to turn away seniors even more quickly than other groups.

With people living longer and more isolated lives, some are predicting an "epidemic of loneliness" among seniors. Studies show that social connection is important for staying healthy (and that isolation may lead to higher rates of disease). Mangan hopes he can help reverse a trend, by linking up like-minded people and starting new relationships that wouldn't otherwise have existed.

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