We are living longer than ever, but many of us are not getting the most out of these extra years. For some, later years are a time of prosperity and good health, but others have to cope with health and mobility problems. In this article, as part of our Future of Housing guest blog series, Dr Rachael Docking, Senior Programme Manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, highlights the need to build new, and retrofit existing, homes for the ageing population.
By our late 80s, more than one-in-three people will have difficulty with five or more basic daily activities, like washing and dressing. And actually, ill health for many starts in mid-life, with 50-64-year olds having a long-term health condition such as high blood pressure, arthritis or breathing problems.
A suitable home is crucial for our health and wellbeing as we grow older. It can keep us safe and free from injury and falls, enable us to remain active and independent, and help us avoid costly health and social care. This will become ever more important as the number of people living into their 70s, 80s and 90s continues to grow.
And yet, the inadequacy of some of the housing in the UK is compounding problems. Research carried out by the Centre for Ageing Better [PDF – 1.9MB] shows that we have the oldest housing stock in the EU, with homes that are cold, damp and generally in a poor state of repair dominating the market. These poor quality homes are disproportionately lived in by older people, with 1.3 million people aged 55 and over living in a home with at least one ‘category one hazard’ – defined as something that poses a serious threat to health or safety. This can range from damp and mould, and excess cold or heat to the ergonomics related to living in the space, and structural collapse and falling elements.
Our homes are also largely inaccessible – just 7% have all four accessibility features that make them welcoming to most people, like level access and a toilet at entrance level. This matters, given 90% of over-65s live in ordinary flats and houses, rather than specialist retirement properties.
The lack of suitable and affordable housing options for people as they age is leading many to stay put until a crisis forces them to move. Our research with Greater Manchester Combined Authority [PDF – 5MB] reveals that many over 50s cannot move home in the way that they would like – people over 50 make half as many moves compared to the rest of the population. Although those with higher levels of wealth can move more easily, and those on the lowest incomes receive more support from social care providers, those on low- and middle-incomes can find themselves trapped in homes that are no longer appropriate for them.
Action needs to be taken now
We need more diverse housing options that meet the needs of people as they age, across all tenures. We need renewed investment and interest in improving our existing housing stock and to support local authorities, planners and developers to deliver new homes that are future-proofed and accessible to everyone, regardless of age.
This is about our future selves, our families, and our friends, and ensuring we all have the home environments we need to continue to live well in the communities we love.
And the public support this too. In a recent Centre for Ageing Better poll nearly three-quarters of adults said they think all new homes should be built to be suitable for all ages and abilities, and nearly half don’t think society is doing enough to enable people to live independently at home as they get older.
Building new and better homes should be a top priority in responding to the demographic shift we are experiencing. In the meantime, we can do more to upgrade what we’ve currently got, improving the condition and accessibility of existing housing, ensuring homes are safe, hazard-free and well maintained.
With increasing interest and recognition at a national policy level on the essential role that housing has on our quality of life, the opportunity is now to rethink the housing offer and deliver a whole new generation of homes that we will be happy to live in tomorrow.
Dr Rachael Docking is Senior Programme Manager – Homes at the Centre for Ageing Better. You can follow her on Twitter @Rachael_Docking.
This guest blog is one in a series and is part of our new Future of Housing programme. Find out more about our work in this area by visiting our new Future of Housing knowledge hub.
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