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Family fridge covered in photos and magnets

How can we support more people to age well in place?

The number of intergenerational households, where children, parents and grandparents live together, is rising rapidly, according to the latest Census data.

The latest Census data shows an increase of more than 100,000 in the space of a decade. Alistair Burt, the Minister for Community and Social Care, has suggested this is potentially a positive trend. But is this really the best way to make it possible for more of us to grow old at home?

Living with adult children in old age might be a positive choice for some. But it is forced on others due to a lack of affordable home care, or by a shortage of suitable and affordable accommodation elsewhere. Caring for co-habiting relatives is not without its stresses, and any expansion in informal caring would need to be accompanied by improved rights and support for carers.

There needs to be a wider debate about the viable alternatives to this.

The Strategic Society Centre recommends an increase in the supply and take-up of specialist retirement housing. Between 20% and 40% of older home owners in the UK would benefit from some form of living in adapted or specialised housing, yet only around 5% of older people currently do so. There is also a clear need to repurpose mainstream housing to fit the needs of older people. According to Go Science’s recent review of evidence on homes and neighbourhoods, at present only 5% of all homes have suitable access.

At the seminar to mark the launch of Older Owners which I chaired recently, I heard the term ‘house-blockers’ for the first time. As with ‘bed blockers’ in the NHS, this is a pejorative term that blames older people for the shortcomings of the system and fails to understand the reasons why people who want to move, don’t move. And a key barrier is the lack of suitable and affordable alternative options in the right location.

Data suggests that 85% of older home owners plan to remain in their neighbourhood for a number of years. Moving elsewhere to find suitable accommodation is unlikely to appeal to many people, so there is a real need to encourage private housing developers and home owners themselves to invest in new models of housing, as well as adaptations of existing housing stock. There are a number of schemes leading the way in this regard.

Most older home owners want to remain in the place where they have built up community and social relationships. These relationships are important not only for wellbeing but also because they help to reduce the likelihood of admission to hospital or a care home: a trend highlighted by research in recent years. Living Well in Cornwall uses volunteer co-ordinators to help connect people to local community activities, and has reduced non-elective admissions to hospitals or care homes by around a third. There are also innovative solutions such as shared living models, where young people – often students – rent discounted rooms as lodgers, providing income for the older person but also company and basic support if needed. Models such as Homeshare supported by SharedLivesPlus, while common in Europe, have been slower to take off in the UK.

Perhaps these may be better solutions to the so-called problem of ‘under occupation’ than trying to encourage people to downsize when they either don’t want to move or don’t have any options locally to move to. It is encouraging to see more ideas being generated and it will be important to evaluate the impact of these.

As the Centre for Ageing Better develops its own priorities we are looking carefully at what we know contributes to a good later life. People express a desire to stay independent for as long as possible. Their ability to do so is not only influenced by the adaptability and suitability of their home, but also the neighbourhood they live in and the social relationships they have.

As the Government considers how to tackle the housing shortage and concludes the Spending Review, it should use existing evidence to ensure that policies and capital investments deliver homes that are fit for the future for an ageing population.

Anna Dixon
Chief Executive