How should we be housing people in later life?

How should we be housing people in later life?

People photo created by katemangostar -

By Kevan Forde, for DHI's Vision Project

It’s widely recognised that increasing numbers of older people in society bring exciting opportunities but also challenges. On the one hand more older people are occupied with childcare for their grandchildren, or are retiring later and thus keeping their skills in the workforce for longer. On the other people are living longer but with more conditions that can limit their activities and mean that they need more care and support.

More attention to older people has also meant that there’s been greater media attention given to how they live. Only seven percent of older people live in housing that’s specifically designed for them; many live in housing that may not be suitable, but for those who live in specialist accommodation the model is one that hasn’t changed significantly for decades. Is this the sort of housing that’s suitable for the 21st century and beyond? Along with many others I’d say that we need to urgently look at whether it’s fit for the future.

We now have examples from both this country and abroad of different models which challenge our approach. For example, Channel 4’s series on a nursery set in a St Monica’s Trust retirement village is one of the latest examples of how inter-generational initiatives can benefit everyone who takes part. The programme demonstrates great benefits to both their mental and physical health for older people from spending time with nursery age children, surprising even the participants. In Europe older people have been encouraged to live in town centres so that they effectively act as community guardians while people of working age are away at work – they can take in parcels during the day and keep an eye on the neighbourhood. And there are also initiatives such as Shared Lives Plus, which match older people and younger people so that the younger person can live with the older person in return for carrying out some basic tasks.

Examples like this have set me thinking about our own model of retirement housing for people over 55. What are we doing already that works and what should we be changing? Organisations like mine work locally with schools on projects around, for example, digital inclusion, but we do still operate a model which puts older people on the same estate living together and to some extent expect them to get on, even though the only thing that they may have in common is the fact that they’re over 55. Our youngest resident is 52 and our oldest 107, an age range equivalent to a 3-year-old and someone who’s 58. Within that age range there are many people who are physically fit and strong at 80 and some who are frail at 65. A particular problem for some older people, particularly older men, can be isolation, widely quoted as shortening an older person’s life as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. As we all know, loneliness and isolation have become the subject of a national campaign because they are so important.

But if you look at the model widely referred to as sheltered or retirement housing, one question is how much support neighbours give to each other. This is an area that needs to be examined further: does physical proximity – living on an estate with other older people – mean that it’s more likely that they will socialise and, more importantly, support each other? We’re living in an environment where local authorities are having to cut budgets, and those include support for older people – for example, day centres facing closure and local housing support budgets being axed. In practice this means that housing providers like us need and want to do more to help the wellbeing of our residents, but the question is: how?

Intervening directly into someone else’s life can be seen as paternalistic when the intention is to work with people to help their wellbeing. In surveys, residents have been clear with us that they see our responsibility as maintaining their homes and helping them to live independently. Where are the boundaries in intervening? Survey results have demonstrated that residents can understandably be resistant to being organised. Many estates have arrangements where neighbours look out for each other without any interference from us. Surveys also tell us that residents want us to get the basics right before we get involved in other areas such as wellbeing. Yet as a responsible specialist social landlord we have a duty to make sure that our estates are good places to live.

We believe the answer lies in co-producing solutions with our residents, working with them to design projects which work locally but also piloting different approaches so that we can learn from them and get better. We have to remember that many of the people moving on to our estates now are baby boomers, who are used to more choices than the previous generation and rightly don’t like being talked down to. Many are perfectly capable of organising activities on their estate themselves, but we need to continue to help those that want help. We also need to be more robust in evaluating the results of interventions and learn from what others are doing.

As older people become a larger part of the general population there are already great examples we can learn from – but we just need to make sure that we’re co-creating solutions by working together and not imposing what we think is a good idea on people who have a wealth of life experience and can teach us a thing or two themselves.

This article was written for The Vision Project by Kevan Forde, in a personal capacity. Kevan is the Head of Innovation at Anchor Hanover, the largest provider of specialist housing and care for people in later life in England.

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DHI has invited the author to write the above article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies or otherwise of DHI.

The Vision Project is DHI's way of marking its 20th anniversary, not by looking backwards but by looking forwards and seeks a range of diverse views to really inform this process and develop its services for all.

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