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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Planning for later life … where does retirement housing fit in strategic planning?

Rural_Urban Landscape_iStock_000004526499MediumHow does the planning system recognise and reflect the needs of different social groups for housing and amenities? And how should planning respond to current demographic trends? You would assume that these questions would be central concerns of strategic planning and local plan creation, given the long-term view that these processes require. Arguably however, statutory land-use planning has actually been relatively indifferent to the specific needs of age.

Planning around the ‘nuclear family’ norm

The regulation of land use and development is informed by broad strategic assumptions regarding economic, demographic and social changes.  And in addressing the provision of housing, the tendency has been to meet the needs of the ‘nuclear’ family. Other groups, such as the young, the unemployed, the socially excluded and those in ‘later life’, tend to be accommodated at the margins or by default. This is often satisfied through the planned provision of social and educational facilities, rather than being driven by the aspiration for a fully integrated society.

Planning and housing policy interconnect in the UK in a complex and confused way. Housing shortages, the lack of affordable housing, an aggressive geographical divide, widespread social exclusion, the rise of ‘generation rent’ and dysfunctional housebuilding practices all coexist as problems which planning policy is expected to solve.

Meanwhile the realities of 21st century life – such as the fragmentation of extended families due to employment opportunities and longer life expectancy – is creating a market for appropriate housing for older people. Planning for retirement housing has been described as the UK’s next housing crisis.

Planning for retirement housing

Research has pointed to demand for retirement housing increasing as older people (especially those with income, wealth, social networks and health) seek more appropriate accommodation for their later lives. And left to market forces, those in later life compete with first-time buyers for smaller properties.

Failure to downsize can exacerbate wider housing market pressures and create very real psychological and health costs for individuals. Planning has a role here – as shown by a recent Demos study demonstrating how better design of retirement accommodation can help to address the blight of loneliness in later life.

A recent report by Anchor – a not-for-profit provider of housing and care for older people – highlights the issues created by the absence of appropriate retirement housing provision. They argue for a National Task Force on retirement housing; exemption from stamp duty for retirement homes; and reform of the planning system (in England) to remove current disincentives to constructing appropriate numbers of retirement houses.

In terms of changes to planning, they suggest that local planning targets for retirement housing be introduced in local plans; that retirement homes projects be exempt from planning obligation provisions and that eligibility for the Community Infrastructure Levy be reviewed; and that retirement housing should be given the same priority status as affordable housing in development plans.

Similarly, a new All Party Parliamentary Group report on housing and care for older people, published in June this year, calls for a significant change in the focus of Government policy away from concentrating simply on support for first time buyers.

Planning as a symptom or the cause

We’ve written before on this blog about the need for planning to address the need for lifetime homes and age-friendly neighbourhoods. There’s also a lot of research going on into how housing and communities can be planned and designed to assist people with dementia.

Not everyone enjoys later life in the same way and there are considerable discrepancies and inequalities evident – often reflecting earlier life chances. While the planning system has a role to play in addressing these issues, we must recognise that it is a symptom of a wider failure to confront the needs of older life within society. There is a need for a respectful national conversation about how we address the public (social) and private realities of the modern economy.

This blog draws on an article by Professor Greg Lloyd (Ulster University & Wageningen University) published in Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal: Greg Lloyd (2016) Planning for later life. SPEL 175, pp50-51

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