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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If more than one in three homeowners are interested in downsizing, why aren’t they making the move?

 

According to Savills estate agents, about 90,000 people over the age of 65 in the UK downsize to smaller homes each year. On the face of it, that’s a substantial number, but it still leaves more than three million houses under-occupied.

With an ageing population and a serious housing shortage, government at local and national levels is looking for ways to encourage older people to downsize their accommodation so that more family-sized housing is made available.

Benefits of downsizing

Everyone needs good housing, but as people grow older their homes become especially important as places where they can feel safe, independent and comfortable. Downsizing from larger properties can offer significant benefits to older people:

  • Smaller homes can be easier to heat and have lower utility bills.
  • People downsizing to sheltered housing can retain their independence, while having access to support when it’s needed.
  • Smaller homes are easier to manage and cheaper to maintain.
  • People moving into specialised retirement accommodation can experience improvements in their health and wellbeing.

Enabling people to remain in their own homes may also alleviate the pressures on the country’s social care system – pressures that are likely to intensify as the population age rises.

Downsizing barriers

While there are attractions to downsizing, important factors are putting off large numbers of people from moving to a smaller home. Some may feel too confined in a smaller space, experience problems storing their possessions, or miss having a large garden. Others may feel that they’ve taken a long time to climb the property ladder, and want to enjoy the home they have spent a lifetime working to achieve.

But for those who do want to move, downsizing can be expensive.  It may release equity, but some households find the costs of moving – notably stamp duty – may cancel out the financial benefits. And although lower maintenance costs can be a major reason for downsizing, older people moving into apartments may find that costs for maintenance and factoring, may be higher than in a standard family home.

Downsizing: the real story

A 2016 report by the International Longevity Centre (ILC) explored the experiences and expectations of people downsizing from under-occupied housing later in life. The report found that one in three homeowners over 55 are considering or expect to consider downsizing. However, while demand for downsizing is substantial, the reality is a different story:

“In many ways, the older generation is stuck in its current housing, which has resulted in the UK having one of the lowest moving rates amongst its older population compared to other developed countries.”

The study echoed the findings from a 2014 Age UK report which showed that the scarcity of suitable and affordable retirement housing was a barrier to downsizing:

“At the moment, retirement housing makes up just 5-6% of all older people’s housing. Research indicates that many more older people might consider downsizing if alternatives were available, although not just retirement housing schemes.”

The Age UK report noted that, based on demographic trends, specialist retirement housing would need to increase by between 35 and 75% just to keep pace with demand. The report also pointed to poor access standards and cramped accommodation in some sheltered housing schemes as downsizing deterrents.

Alternative approaches

The Scottish Government’s strategy for housing for older people, published in 2011, supports downsizing, and highlights Highland Council’s scheme as an example of good practice. In association with local housing associations, the council has provided financial and practical incentives to support older people wishing to move because their homes are too large for their needs.

Another approach, popular in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, is co-housing, which offers older residents a balance between independence and community life. Co-housing schemes are run totally by the residents, offering support when needed to those who live there, while respecting their dignity and independence.

In the Netherlands, there are now more than 200 co-housing communities. Successive governments there have supported co-housing because it has had such positive impacts on demand for health and social care services.

In April, the UK’s first co-housing project for older women opened in Barnet, north London. One of the scheme’s proponents, Maria Brenton, believes that it will be a model for similar projects:

“One of our purposes is to promote the idea of senior co-housing. Now we have shown the way, we are a living, breathing example, it will encourage people enormously.”

Final thoughts

As the ILC report notes, the policy debate on housing in the UK has focused almost completely on first-time buyers. However, with more than three million homeowners aged 55 or over open to the idea of downsizing, the impact of freeing up large numbers of family homes could be significant. Before that happens, the under-supply of affordable homes meeting the particular needs of older residents needs to be addressed:

“Fundamentally, the notion of downsizing in later life should be about choice rather than obligation. It therefore becomes clear that if we were to develop the right policy environment, we can enhance the choices available to people in later life, encouraging downsizing and creating a more dynamic housing market.”



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World Alzheimer’s Day: can we reduce dementia risk?

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Vince Alongi using a Creative Commons license

By Steven McGinty

On the 21st September, Alzheimer’s organisations across the world will be carrying out events to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s and dementia. The event, a key part of World Alzheimer’s Month, was launched by Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) in 1994, with the aim of highlighting the tremendous work carried out by Alzheimer’s organisations.

Each year, a new theme is selected for World Alzheimer’s Month, and this year the focus will be on how we can reduce the risks of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. In support of this event, I’ve decided to look at some of the statistics on dementia, as well as review the latest evidence on reducing the risks.

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