Grey Matters

An opinion piece written on older people and housing for the 40th anniversary publication of an architecture firm I used to work for. Came out late 2016; I also did several other interview pieces that feature throughout: article.

Jim Hudson asks whether a new generation of people reaching old age might mean a completely different approach to their housing needs

The percentage of people over 65 in Britain is forecast to increase from its current 18%, to almost a quarter of the population by 2040, bringing with it problems of isolation and loneliness, and placing an increasing demand on already stretched health services. But are current models of housing and care provision responding fast enough to this fundamental demographic shift? If you pick up a brochure for sheltered housing, for instance, chances are it will feature a smiling couple in their 60s, with text that emphasizes security and a 24-hour pull cord response. The buildings in the background will no doubt be a low-rise quiet enclave of some form, and will include a communal lounge where residents can attend coffee mornings.

It’s not just that there will be more older people in the future; older people will be different. Those reaching retirement age now and over the next decade are the baby boomers – the first ‘consumer generation’ who are arguably more demanding, and much more diverse, than previous generations. What are they making of the current housing options available to them – private or publicly supported – and might we soon have to rethink the idea of specialist housing for the ‘over 55s’ altogether, when an active 65 or 70 year old will have no interest in anything that’s aimed at ‘the elderly’? The demand for housing geared towards providing more intensive support and care services will undoubtedly grow, especially for dementia care. But for others – people who are perhaps in need of some degree of support services, but want to remain firmly in control of their lives – there are indications of a change in thinking by more than one of the Care Providers that Baily Garner works with. There’s a view that the ‘extra care’ model, while continuing to provide important services, has grown into a monolithic system, with a tick-box approach that has often led to the over-provision of communal spaces and shared amenities such as hairdressing salons, that are simply not used. Increasingly, there is only demand for such accommodation by those who are much older – in their 80s rather than the now rather arbitrary ‘over 55’ line drawn in planning regulations – and who might be having to accept something they don’t feel is ideal, in return for the care services which they do need.

And although the appearance of many retirement schemes has evolved into something less institutional in feel, there are a number of schemes that strongly reject the typical image of an insular ‘old folks home’ tucked away somewhere in suburbia. Some housing association clients are looking for schemes to have a more ‘exclusive’ feel, with apartment blocks that might have a function room at ground level, or a small restaurant – the kind where you make a booking rather than something that feels like a school dinner sitting. But the real change is location; the aim is to build on central urban sites, next to transport nodes and proper local amenities – high streets with decent shops and some life at street level. Such approaches are very rare in the UK so far. But countries such as the Netherlands show how a completely different attitude to older people and housing has meant that urban, city centre high rises for older people, with communal facilities at ground level are common. Greater flexibility in providers’ use of public funding also means longerterm capital investment decisions are possible, reflected in better quality finishes rather than the drive to minimise capital build costs – the buildings simply have a feel of better quality.

Of course, such central locations mean housing providers competing for sites that are in demand for all residential uses, especially in the southeast where demand is highest, and social providers are hit by a double whammy of right-to-buy and dwindling public funding. But there is perhaps a role here for local planning authorities to create opportunities on selected sites, if they really are serious about creating genuinely mixed neighbourhoods.

In the private sector, Baily Garner is involved in a scheme that is admittedly ‘high-end’, but is exploring alternatives to the traditional ‘coffee mornings and pull-cord’ approach, with innovative ideas and facilities that are aimed at responding to new consumer demand; instead of acres of parking, there is a small pool of electric vehicles (helped by a sponsorship deal with the manufacturer, made possible by the ‘exclusive’ nature of the development) and a concierge service that actually is a service, closer perhaps to a hotel reception. The developer believes strongly that there is a real market for older people looking to downsize into smaller, adaptable homes, where they won’t have to suffer, say, party noise from younger neighbours every weekend, but will be able to benefit from good locations and facilities. In all areas of housing provision for older people, we need to continue to see a move away from ‘responding to care needs’ as a goal in itself, toward policies and approaches that start with an independent person in their home (of whatever type), with support tailored around this. NHS England has warned repeatedly of the ‘crippling costs’ of caring for elderly patients in hospitals where the root cause is actually loneliness and isolation. Successful new housing solutions need to play a role here, with more creative approaches to supporting sociable communities that keep people active and engaged, rather than just creating dependency on care services.

In the US, the “villages” model has emerged, where networks of older people in a neighbourhood jointly commission support services, but through doing this also create mutually supportive social networks. In several north European countries the idea of ‘senior cohousing’ is becoming established, where groups of older people develop their own small housing communities, each with their own home but also with a social space, and hope to mutually support each other to encourage more sociable – and therefore it is argued healthier – lives. In the Netherlands the model has become almost mainstream, where it’s a significant portion of all housing and receives public funding. Here in the UK, it’s yet to make an impact, but the first senior cohousing group will move in to their new homes in north London later this year (known as Older Women’s Cohousing, OWCH for short), with more schemes in the pipeline. Of course, ideas like these won’t appeal to everyone – we don’t all want to live in the same place, or with the same kind of people. But there is a need to recognise the housing for older people in the future will need to be as diverse as older people themselves, and support us all (we are none of us immune from ageing, after all) in continuing active and useful lives for as long as possible. Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves of any scheme that we’re involved in for older people is: would we move in here tomorrow? And if the answer is ‘no’, should we expect others to?

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