26 May 2020
Our Senior Evidence Manager, Holly Holder, writes about the challenges faced by those in poor quality homes during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Prevention is better than cure. Five words that have been uttered 1,000 times before but in the midst of a pandemic, they feel of vital importance. With millions of older people and those with health conditions being asked to keep to their homes for twelve weeks, we need urgent action to protect those living in a home that could endanger their health.
In the list of the government’s extremely vulnerable groups of people who are being asked not to have any face to face contact for twelve weeks, there is more than one respiratory condition. Similarly, countless numbers of people with less serious respiratory conditions are being asked to take additional precautions that mean significantly restricting their lives.
The causes of respiratory conditions are complex and difficult to isolate in each case. We do know, however, that living in a damp or cold home can be the primary source of such health problems. And for those who already had one of these conditions before moving into a poor-quality home, their living environment is likely to lead to a deterioration in their health.These are not scarce events. An estimated 10 million people live in a poor-quality home that risks their health, nearly one fifth of all homes. This includes 2.5 million hazardous homes that are simply too cold to heat to a suitable temperature, cause people to fall on the stairs or trip somewhere else in the home, among other reasons. Just over 700,000 of these poor quality homes are headed by someone who is aged 75 and over who are more likely to have a health condition, and 15% of all wheelchair users live in one of these unsafe properties.
For our recently published report, Home and Dry: the need for decent homes in later life, we spoke to people living in these conditions. Brenda had no electricity on the top floor of her home due to a leak in the roof that she was unable to have repaired. She was living with battery operated night lights on her landing and was scared each night that she might fall down the stairs.
These are heartbreaking stories at the best of times – but in times like this, they take on a greater urgency. If we had solved this problem already, the current pressure on the NHS would be less. If we had reduced the number of poor-quality homes, fewer people would be living with respiratory issues and the government’s list of vulnerable people would be shorter. If more people had warm and safe homes, larger numbers would be able to recover from illness faster and have a full recovery rather being left with ongoing health problems.
We need the government to lead a coalition of stakeholders to invest in improving thermal standards and energy efficiency, to develop or extend mechanisms that enable low-income home owners to bring their homes up to basic standards, and to ensure that locally there are the home improvement agencies and handyperson services that people need. The cast list of relevant parties is long. We need coordinated action from national and local governments, financial and building industries, third sector organisations, landlords, health and other public sector workers, and people themselves. It is complicated but not impossible – and is absolutely crucial to averting future health crises.
If you (or someone you know) are living in a home that puts your health at risk, being asked to stay indoors will be a frightening request. Sue Adams, of Care & Repair England, a charity that aims to improve their homes for better ageing, offers the following advice for anyone concerned:
Staying warm – this is critical to keeping well but paying for additional heating is a worry for many people. Extra help is being promised, starting with pre-payment meter customers and ending disconnections, but more is needed. NEA offers information advice about possible financial and practical help.
Reducing risk of falling or other accidents – have a look around your home and get rid of any obvious trip hazards, such as loose mats and rugs, trailing wires or items, e.g. books, shoes, magazines etc. left on the stairs or floors. Good lighting is important – do put the light on if you get up in the night. Keep your mobile phone charged and with you at all times so you can call for help. For more suggestions see this RoSPA checklist.
Keep active – sitting still for a long time increases risk of a fall and can make other health problems worse. Try to move about at least every hour, if possible doing small jobs and safe exercises throughout the day. Simple strength and balance exercises at home can help to keep muscles working.
Small adaptations and equipment – grabrails, walking frames and chair raisers are just some of the simple changes that can make a difference to being able to live safely at home. The Disabled Living Foundation offers free, independent information.
Longer term – help to improve your home – whilst people are self-isolating it is not going to be possible (in most cases) for specialists to do a full home safety check and find builders to carry out necessary repairs or adaptations. However, you could find out whether there is a ‘home improvement agency’ that will offer help in your area on this website Foundations.