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A home for life? Developing lifetime neighbourhoods to support ageing well in place

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The UK population is ageing. A 2019 report from AgeUK using data from the ONS highlighted that there are nearly 12 million (11,989,322) people aged 65 and above in the UK of which: 5.4 million people are aged 75+, 1.6 million are aged 85+, over 500,000 people are 90+ (579,776) and 14,430 are centenarians. By 2030, one in five people in the UK (21.8%) will be aged 65 or over, 6.8% will be aged 75+ and 3.2% will be aged 85+.

Allowing people to live well in old age in their own homes is something which housebuilders and planners are giving increasing thought to, both from a wellbeing perspective for residents, and a financial perspective for services, including the NHS and social care. The creation of “lifetime neighbourhoods” – spaces where people can live well from birth to retirement – brings together a number of elements: providing easy access to services; creating physical spaces which are suitable for people with disabilities and mobility issues to navigate; and allowing people to maintain those social and community ties which are associated with wellbeing, which can sometimes be lost with forced moves to residential care or a prolonged stay in hospital.

Homes for life

Building homes that are suitable for an ageing population is an important first step in creating lifetime neighbourhoods. However, planners and developers are starting to realise that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all when it comes to housing for older people. As with the general population, older people are not a homogenous group, and while some may need the support provided by extra care or sheltered housing projects, or may need single-storey open plan living to accommodate mobility aids or telecare packages, others simply want to live in a space which enables them to live comfortably in a community which suits their needs in terms of location and availability of services.

Designing and building a range of different housing types, which includes single-storey homes, extra care and sheltered housing, as well as stock which is suitable for people looking to downsize, is a key part of the development of effective lifetime neighbourhoods. This can free up larger family homes for people with children to move into and ensure that people are not kept unnecessarily in hospital because housing cannot be adapted to meet changing needs. A 2014 Age UK report showed that the scarcity of suitable and affordable retirement housing is a barrier to downsizing, highlighting that retirement housing makes up just 5-6% of all older people’s housing. Now groups like the Housing Made for Everyone coalition (HoME) are calling on the government to make all new homes accessible and adaptable as standard to help meet growing need in the future.

Social infrastructure such as libraries, community centres, local shops and good transport links are also a key aspect to planning effective lifetime neighbourhoods, as is ensuring accessibility of services such as GP appointments. Effective infrastructure planning can help enable the whole community, not just older people to feel connected to their local area, both physically and socially which can really help to support the idea of lifetime neighbourhoods and enable people to live well regardless of age.

Preventing loneliness and isolation in older age

Preventing loneliness and isolation in old age by creating spaces which facilitate engagement and encourage people to have positive social interactions is important to ensure that everyone within the community feels respected, involved and appreciated. However, the challenges are different depending on the nature of the community in question. In rural areas, social isolation can be compounded by a lack of appropriate transport infrastructure or the removal of key services at a local level in favour of “hubs” which are often located in towns and cities; in urban areas, loneliness can be exacerbated by the chaotic, hostile or intimidating environment that living in a densely populated area can have, a flip side to the benefits of density.

Ambition for ageing is a programme which aims to discover what works in reducing social isolation by taking an asset based approach to creating age friendly communities. Asset based approaches seek to identify the strengths and the abilities of people and communities, rather than their deficits. The asset based approach to creating age friendly neighbourhoods also seeks to use the experiences and  attributes that all members of the community have to help make the community better. To create effective age friendly neighbourhoods older people need to have opportunities to participate and feel that they are making a positive contribution.

A space for all ages

While much of the research and literature on lifetime neighbourhoods focuses on older people, it is also important to ensure that spaces meet the needs of all groups in the community, including children and young people and people with disabilities. Creating places which balance the needs of all groups within the community is an important consideration for planners.

The physical environment can be as important as the built environment and infrastructure development when it comes to developing lifetime neighbourhoods. Spaces which make use of natural and green infrastructure with lots of green and open public spaces have been shown to help improve mental health and wellbeing, as well as encouraging people of all ages to be more active. A number of design factors such as good paving, effective street lighting and easy access to seating and public toilets make neighbourhoods accessible to older people and people with impairments. Poor design can ‘disable’ people in their immediate environment and act as a barrier to participation in local activities.

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Final thoughts

For lifetime neighbourhoods to be successful, it is necessary that there is access to a range of appropriate housing options. In addition, the planning of public, open and green spaces, availability of transport links and local community infrastructure like libraries, police stations and local shops are all vitally important to ensure communities can thrive.

It is clear that while there is demand for more suitable housing for people in older age, the location and type of housing being built must also meet the needs and expectations of older residents, including good connections to local infrastructure, and safe accommodation. Projects which bring a range of ages together can be effective in strengthening community cohesion, can help challenge stereotypes and can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Collectively these different elements feed into the creation of lifetime neighbourhoods which can support people to live well into retirement and beyond.


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“A new journey”: creating a dementia-friendly public transport system

People diagnosed with dementia can live independently for many years – in fact, 1 in 3 people with dementia are still able to drive safely.  However, as the disease progresses, people with dementia must eventually stop driving.  Public transport can be a good alternative to driving for those in the early stages of dementia, enabling them to stay connected with their families, friends and local communities, and provide access to healthcare.

Indeed, the provision of easily accessible public transport options is a key aspect of dementia-friendly communities.  It is difficult to overstate its importance:

“If I didn’t have coping strategies to remain independent and mobile I’d be very lonely and soon sink into depression. Travel brings normality to an often abnormal life” Wendy Mitchell, recording a Dementia Diary for Upstream

However, the challenges faced by people with dementia mean that travelling by public transport can be daunting.  This is because dementia affects more than just memory.  Environments that are noisy and busy can be extremely disorientating for people with dementia, particularly when there are added time-sensitive elements such as bus or train times.

People with dementia often lose the confidence to travel.  They may experience difficulties purchasing the correct tickets, become confused by different fares or travel options, or feel hurried or pressured.  They may feel anxious or unsafe, for example, when becoming separated from their luggage or they may have a fear of becoming lost, or getting off at the wrong stop/station.

In addition to the cognitive, emotional and sensory challenges faced by people with dementia when travelling, there are a number of additional barriers.  These include:

  • Difficulties with journey planning
  • The use of fast changing technology which can exclude certain groups of people
  • A lack of service integration
  • Staff with limited awareness of the needs of people with dementia
  • Poor, inconsistent or confusing signage – or unclear rules regarding reserved seats/spaces

Policy and practice

The UK has set out the goal of becoming the best country in the world for people with dementia by 2020.  It has made some significant steps forward – currently, there are now over 200 communities working towards becoming ‘dementia friendly’.

In regards to transport improvements specifically, earlier this year, the Bus Services Act gained royal assent in England.  The Act provides powers to ensure that buses make both audible and visual announcements about the route and the next stop.  These reminders can help to reassure people with dementia.  The government has committed to work alongside the bus industry, passengers and disability groups to develop the policy further.

The government is also currently consulting on a draft ‘Accessibility Action Plan’, which addresses the barriers faced by people with disabilities using public transport, including a focus on hidden disabilities, such as dementia.  It also commits to updating existing guidance on ‘inclusive mobility’ to incorporate current knowledge and understanding of the needs of those with hidden disabilities such as dementia.

Involving people with dementia in service design

Involving people with dementia in the design of services can help to ensure that their needs are addressed.  Upstream is a project that does just that.  It helps to give people living with dementia across Scotland a voice in the design of future mobility services.

Projects have involved visiting various groups in the Western Isles to learn about the challenges of island transport, workshops to gather insights about travel with Dementia Friendly East Lothian and the North Berwick Coastal Area Partnership; and developing training programmes in conjunction with transport providers.  They have produced a report of their work so far.

Use of technology

The expansion of real time audio and visual information as set out in the Bus Services Act provides a good example of where technology can be used to make transport more accessible for people with dementia and other disabilities.

Other ways in which technology may help include the expansion of live departure boards at bus stops and increasing the use of journey planners – either online or via the telephone.  Apps may also have the potential to help organise shared modes of transport for groups of people in rural areas, and in the future, driverless cars may offer an additional transport option for people living with dementia.

Improved awareness of dementia among travel staff

Improving awareness of dementia among transport staff, and developing training programmes on how to respond to the needs of passengers with dementia, is another key way in which services can be improved.

For example, East Anglia Trains, has worked with the Dementia Society to deliver a dementia-awareness training pilot for staff at four of its stations, and plans to roll this out to all East Anglia staff. Arriva Rail Northern has also announced funding to develop the Bentham Line from Leeds to Lancaster and Morecambe as a ‘centre of excellence’ for people with dementia.

Transport assistance cards are another example of possible ways to improve transport for people with dementia. These cards record details of an individual’s needs so that the individual can show the card privately to the driver or other travel staff as a means of asking for extra assistance. Many individual transport operators and local authorities across the country already issue such cards.  Standardising these schemes across the UK may be one way to help improve people’s confidence when using public transport.

Future developments

While these initiatives are making a significant impact, there is still much to do.  If the growing number of people living with dementia are to maintain their independence, then it is essential that transport services become more dementia-friendly. Bringing together the shared knowledge and experiences of those living with dementia, and the skills and experience of professionals involved in the design and delivery of transport services will help to create a more inclusive, person-centred public transport system.

Dr Joy Watson, an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society who herself has been diagnosed with dementia, sets out an admirable goal:

A diagnosis of dementia is not the end of the road, but the beginning of a new journey.  Some people need a little more help to take the first steps, and if I can contribute to them living well, then my mission is fulfilled.”


Maggie’s Centres: wellness through building design and the environment

In March 2017, the 20th Maggie’s Centre was opened in the grounds of Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Falkirk. Designed by architects Garbers & James, it is expected to receive 3000 visits in the first year.

Maggies Centre Forth Valley, Garbers and James

Maggie’s provides free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their family and friends, following the ideas about cancer care originally laid out by Maggie Keswick Jencks and co-founded by her husband Charles, who is a landscape architect. Among Maggie’s beliefs about cancer treatment was the importance of environment to a person dealing with cancer.

She talked about the need for “thoughtful lighting, a view out to trees, birds and sky,” and the opportunity “to relax and talk away from home cares”. She talked about the need for a welcoming, reassuring space, as well as a place for privacy, where someone can take in information at their own pace. This is what Maggie’s centres today aspire to.

A number of high profile architects have designed Maggie’s Centres across the UK – from the late Zaha Hadid to Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers and Rem Koolhaas.

The Maggie’s Centre in Kirkcaldy, Zaha Hadid Architects

Promoting wellbeing through the natural environment and effective design

Drawing on research which considers the significant impact that environment can have on wellbeing, Maggie’s Centres are designed to be warm and communal, while at the same time being stimulating and inspiring. The interiors are comfortable and home-like. Landscape designers and architects are encouraged to work closely together from the beginning of a project as the interplay between outside and inside space, the built and the “natural” environment, is seen as an important one.

A building, while not wholly capable of curing illness, can act as “a secondary therapy”, encouraging wellness, rehabilitation and inspiring strength from those who move around it.”

Each of the centres incorporates an open kitchenette where patients can gather for a cup of tea, airy sitting rooms with access to gardens and other landscape features, and bountiful views. There are also private rooms for one-on-one consultations; here Maggie’s staff can advise patients on a range of issues relating to their condition, whether that is dietary planning, discussing treatment options (in a non-clinical setting) or delivering classes such as yoga.

Spaces to promote mental wellbeing as well as physical healing

Maggie’s Centres are also about offering spaces to people to help improve their mental wellbeing. As well as quiet tranquil spaces for reflection and meditation, there are also central areas, focused on encouraging the creation of a community between the people who use the centre. Wide-open spaces, high ceilings and large windows, with lots of opportunities to view the outside landscaping and allow natural light to enter are a key feature of many of the Maggie’s Centres.

The locations also try as far as possible to provide a space free from noise and air pollution, while remaining close enough to oncology treatment centres to provide a localised base for the entire treatment plan of patients.

Fresh air, low levels of noise and exposure to sunlight and the natural environment, as well as designs that provide spaces that promote communal interaction to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, have all been shown to improve mental as well as physical wellbeing. In this way, the physical attributes and design of the Maggie’s buildings are helping to promote mental as well as physical wellbeing of patients and supplement the care being given by the cancer treatment centres located nearby.

Interior of the Maggie’s Centre in Manchester, Foster and Partners

Award-winning architecture and design

In 2017 Maggie’s Manchester was shortlisted for the Architects’ Journal Building of the Year award. And many of the individual centres have won regional design awards for their innovative use of space and incorporation of the natural environment into their designs.

A Maggie’s garden was also featured at the 2017 Chelsea Flower show, highlighting the importance of environment, and the role of the natural environment in rehabilitation and promoting wellness among those who are ill.

Final thoughts

How design and landscape can aid and empower patients is central to Maggie’s Centres. They are a prime example of how people can be encouraged to live and feel well through the design of buildings and the integration of the surrounding natural environment. These environments are the result of a complex set of natural and manmade factors, which interact with one another to promote a sense of wellness, strength and rehabilitation.

They demonstrate how the built environment can contribute to a holistic package of care – care for the whole person, not just their medical condition. Other health and social care providers can learn from them in terms of supporting the wellbeing of patients, carers and their families.


You can find out more about Maggie’s Centres though their website.

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Read more about innovative building design in our other blog articles.

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