30 Jun 2020
Our Senior Programme Manager, Heather Scotcher, explains why it's crucial that homes are built to be suitable for people of all ages and abilities.
Last weekend I joined some friends for a birthday celebration. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and conversation turned to the run-down house next door, which had been empty for a while. The former residents, in their mid-90s, had struggled with maintenance and repairs, leaving the house untouched for many years.
Work had recently started on the property, and one day my friends had spotted huge flashes of light coming from one of the upstairs window. They were mystified – and even more so when they saw a tall, stunning woman in a long blue dress emerging from the house. Not the type of outfit worn by your typical building contractor, they thought! It turned out a photographer had been using the unmodernised property, with its 60s-style décor, as a stage set for a photoshoot before the refurbishment started in earnest.
This got me thinking about the many and varied uses, inhabitants and visitors to a house will see over its lifetime – and what it means for a house to be truly flexible and able to accommodate them all. While it’s lovely that this decrepit old house was given a new lease of life as the set for a fashion shoot, it’s desperately sad that its previous inhabitants had been forced to live for years in a house that so badly needed doing up because they weren’t able to make the repairs or adaptations they needed.
Nearly 20% of households in which the oldest person is over 60 are damp, hazardous or in disrepair.
This is a problem for far too many people in later life. Although our houses will over the years play host to people with a huge variety of needs and abilities, the vast majority of homes are inflexible, unsuitable for people with mobility issues, and hard to adapt. And as our older population grows, this becomes a problem for more and more people.
New data from the recently released English Housing Survey illustrates the problem. There has been a rapid rise in the number of older households – today there are over a million more households headed by someone over the age of 65 than there were in 2010. Nearly 20% of households in which the oldest person is over 60 are damp, hazardous or in disrepair, and only 7% of houses have the necessary features which make them suitable for people in wheelchairs or with mobility issues.
This sorry state of affairs isn’t inevitable. A good home can make a huge difference to our health and wellbeing in later life, and with the right changes, we can make sure everyone lives in a home which enables them to stay safe and independent for as long as possible.
A crucial part of this is flexibility: supporting people to make the aids and adaptations they need, from level access walk-in showers to grab rails and even stair lifts, and building all new houses to be much more easily adapted.
Building new accessible homes isn’t just about later life – it means homes that work for everyone. It means saving parents from wrestling prams, pushchairs, and kids’ bikes up and down steps to the front door; it means if you twist your ankle you can still get into your home with your shopping, and your neighbour who uses a mobility aide can visit. It means your great aunt can stay over without everyone worrying about how to assist her upstairs to reach the bathroom.
At the Centre for Ageing Better, we’re pushing for tougher regulations to ensure newbuild homes have this kind of flexibility – something the government is currently considering. We’re also working to encourage businesses to make home adaptations that are stylish and comfortable. Grab rails or level-access showers shouldn’t have to look like they belong in a hospital, and we hope that one day soon you’ll be able to pick up many of these kinds of items from any DIY store.
A safe and comfortable home is one of the most basic needs we have – and yet today, too many people are trapped in houses that are damaging to their health or put their safety at risk. But with the right support for people to repair and adapt the homes they’re in, and a genuine effort to build new houses that are safe and adaptable, we can ensure that our homes really are cut out for a lifetime of use.
A safe and comfortable home is one of the most basic needs we have.