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The housing market seems slow to respond to the changing demographics of older people, and there is a danger that just doing ”more of the same” will no longer work, and will fail to meet peoples rising expectations.

After nearly 40 years as a housing manager, I think that now, probably more than ever, there is a danger in accepting things just as they are. Not challenging, or at worst knowing something does not feel right, even if we, as a society, have been doing it wrong. And have been doing it wrong for years and years. So much so, in fact, that alternatives almost seem not to exist, and how things are is the absolute “norm”.

The case in point is housing for older people.

"Retirement" housing. "Sheltered" housing. I can even remember when we gave it numbers. "Part 2" and "Part 3". Everyone knew the lingo and there were no questions asked.

However, thinking of my own situation - which I expect many people arrive at - the position is that as we journey through life, we tend to accumulate things. Some big, some small, some with a monetary value, some just part of who you are and some for sentimental reasons.

I passed a block of flats recently; there was a 'For Sale' sign on display, saying "retirement flat". It didn't look big enough to get a sofa in. Which made me think how traumatic it must be to get to a certain age, then have to part with most of what is valuable to you just so you can squeeze into what “we” deem a suitable space for someone aged over 60, 65, 70 etc. to fit into.

In fact it’s even worse, as many “social landlords” are letting "sheltered" or "EPDs" (elderly persons dwellings) to people as young as 50. This whole sub sector has been very good at labelling things.

Collectively, by consensus, we have decided that at a time in life when most people have collected a lifetime of personal possessions, all that is available to them - unless they have the income to live somewhere bigger than a couple of rooms - is a very limited choice of accommodation surrounded by lots of other older people. Ghettoisation in all but name, even if it is a more expensive, private "scheme", or "complex", or "village". Even more labels.

It is an issue that I believe we have to face up to. Moreso, as the warning signs were there back on the 1980s.

In 1989, the local authority that I was then working for in the northern Home Counties completed the building of 2 new sheltered housing schemes which had inbuilt obsolescence that became apparent very quickly. I was responsible for letting the flats - around 90 properties in total. After the first flush of interest, and after the first tenants had moved in, we began to struggle to let the last few flats. The reasons for refusal were always the same. People did not want to ”downsize” to a 1 bedoom flat, partly due to the loss of living space, because some people had a need for a second bedroom - either for a “live in” carer, or due to a medical condition, or just the not unreasonable desire to have space to accommodate visiting relatives, particularly grandchildren. The hard fact was from the outset, just providing 90 1 bedroom flats - high spec. as they were - just “doing as we had done before” did not work. The failure to provide some larger flats, and to go for a “one size fits all” approach, created schemes that over time would suffer from reducing demand. This is exactly what has happened.

A few years later I was managing a “retirement village” in Devon. The “village” had been built in the 1950s, was in a beautiful, quiet, out of town location, and was very popular. It was widely referred to as a “model village”.

The problem was that while the “village” had been built at a very low density of homes per acre, and while the open spaces were maintained to a standard that would make Disneyland envious, the properties lacked the space standards and facilities that most people had become used to or aspired to. Even in this highly desirable location, with an active and supportive local community, the fact that property standards had fallen behind rising expectations meant that as each property became vacant it was an increasing struggle to relet. I am sure that this “village” has undergone some remodeling in recent years, but the lesson here is that even a “model village” cannot withstand changes in lifestyle, with ever more appliances, gadgets, and accoutrements to fit into a defined floor area.

Ultimately, above all others, living space is the issue.

Like most developed countries, the UK has an ageing population. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of people aged over 65 increased by 1 million. Trends show that the number of people aged over 65 who are economically active doubled between 2001 and 2011, and only a third of people within that age group live alone. Yet, most models of housing for older people assumed (and, still assumes) that they no longer work, and that the majority are single person households - hence, as a society we are still delivering more and more accommodation with one bedroom. Despite what data tells us, it seems we are intent of doing more of the same.

Evidence shows that where people can continue to live in their own homes they tend to enjoy better health, and presumably a better quality of life. For people aged 65 or over, overall 50% reported themselves as being in good health; but, for those living in communal establishments that figure reduced to 16%. More research on this is needed, but it does seem that where older people live in their own home there are benefits to their health, and this can only be positive for the Treasury, the NHS, and wider society.

In the terraced houses where I grew up, there were older people living at each end of the street. As kids, my friends and I would often run errands for them, and then have a chat on the door step about their experiences in the two world wars, about what life was like before the NHS, or any number of other issues. Different generations living with one another, learning from one another, supporting one another. Community continuity.

The question is, how do we move this forward ? It means facing up to some big challenges:

  • It means challenging hard all that we, as a society, thought was appropriate for so long. The housing industry, planners, local councillors, and all other interested parties need to adopt a fresh outlook.
  • It means ending carpeting the country in more and more single bedroom properties designated solely for older people.
  • It means slaying the misconception that, as a country, there is insufficient land available to build enough new homes of the necessary volume and to the necessary standards to create homes for the future where older people can live with dignity.
  • It means a commitment as a society to making older people integral parts of local communities, reintegrating all their life experience, helping them overcome social isolation, rather than sending them off into spatial retirement.
  • It throws down a challenge to the first developer, the first council, the first housing association to break the mold - to do something radical, different, and fresh. There is always a risk in being first, but the benefits are almost boundless.
  • And, it means giving back to people who have served their communities, paid their taxes, and helped build and defend the country we live in, a choice in where they live. 

If the "appropriate" route which we have accepted for so long means putting people of a certain age through the trauma of a dispossession process, dislocating them from much of what they hold dear, and ringfencing them outside the wider communities where they live, this surely cannot be right. And this is precisely what we have been doing for years, generation on generation.

Surely, as we approach 2020 we can do better than this? We can be more humane, more caring, more ambitious, and more new century than old in our thinking and approaches. It’s not too late.

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