In the next 20 years alone, the UK population between 65-84 years will increase by almost 40% and the number of over 85 year olds by more than 100%. It is predicted that the effects of demographic change on the health and welfare system as well as the labour market will be drastic. The rapid ageing of society also has dramatic effects on available affordable housing and only a well-planned policy response can prevent a national housing crisis.
Elderly people occupy almost a third of all homes in the UK. The vast majority of elderly people (over 73%) own the house they live in.
The English Housing Survey 2012 has found that almost 50% of homes occupied by their owners have at least two bedrooms that are not considered ‘necessary’. Elderly people often live in homes that are too big and too expensive to maintain. This not only increases their risk of slipping into poverty due to high utility bills, but is also an inefficient distribution of available housing space. Until 2032, the number of over 85 year olds living alone will grow by 244%, which will result in 40% of all households being occupied by only one person. These trends will create shortage of affordable housing necessitating a well-designed and quickly implemented housing policy to tackle this looming crisis.
Alleviation of the housing shortage is complicated by is a lack of retirement and care homes in the UK. With the number of very old and frail people increasing rapidly, the demand for housing options with available carers and nurses will rise dramatically. Local councils are reluctant to approve plans to build retirement homes because of the additional burden this would create on their health and social care facilities. The UK government needs to create incentives for local councils to approve the building of retirement properties as well as support for communities that have a particularly high proportion of elderly citizens. Currently, only 1% of the elderly in the UK live in retirement homes, compared to 17% in the US. According to the London-based think tank Demos, almost 60% of people of the age of 60 and above are interested in moving. Hence, we need to offer more and better housing alternatives for elderly people. This would not only serve the interests of the elderly, but it would free up houses for large numbers of young people currently unable to find or afford a home.
The implementation of an innovative housing policy can improve the overall well-being of elderly people in many ways that go beyond the mere provision of a suitable living space. Elderly people spend the majority of their awake time at home due to poor health, reduced mobility and shrinking social networks. This often leads to loneliness and social isolation, which can be addressed by encouraging more communal forms of living together. Hence, the housing conditions of a person matter even more in old age and can have a substantial impact on quality of life. Many elderly people require special adaptation of their homes due to mobility restrictions and poor health. A study from 2006 showed, that about 20% of elderly people in the UK live in unsuitable housing. Stairs and doorsteps can create barriers for old people and rooms such as kitchens and bathrooms should be adapted to minimise the risk of injury. The infrastructure and proximity of grocery shops, pharmacies and GPs is also key for elderly people with reduced mobility.
Hence, not only do more retirement homes need to be built in the UK, but we need to create innovative alternatives to the current models. To bundle resources and combat social isolation, the focus should lie on communal housing options that are well adapted for the needs of elderly people. Co-housing, shared houses and apartments for elderly people or inter-generational housing are good starting points. The UK government could incentivise architects and building companies to plan around such models by creating awards and prizes. Housing projects in which students live with elderly people in exchange for taking care of household chores exist in several areas of Europe. When elderly people live in close proximity to each other, health, care and other assistance services (cleaning, washing, cooking, laundry etc.) as well as 24-hours alarm systems can be delivered more efficiently. In large scale housing projects, health care centres and entertainment and exercise activities can be offered in an easily accessible way. In particular for elderly people living in rural areas, centralising the provision of such services would have far-reaching advantages.
Innovative housing projects should allow the elderly people to live independently and self-sufficiently with only minimal support for as long as possible while at the same time preventing social isolation and negligence. This is not only important for their feeling of dignity, but it is the most cost-efficient way of housing the elderly. Elderly people are a hugely diverse group and in order to effectively design housing projects that fulfil the various needs and wants, it is essential to include interested parties in planning processes. The UK government needs to create more incentives for older people to move. Apart from creating awareness of nonmaterial gains, financial support and incentives should be created. Equity release schemes, which enable elderly people to take a loan in the value of their property should they choose to move, are steps in the right direction. Schemes to encourage elderly people to actually sell their homes, such as exemptions and financial support with legal fees, should also be implemented. In order to prevent the outbreak of a serious housing crisis, it will not be sufficient to only respond to already apparent problems. Demographic change will alter the make-up of society dramatically. We need to plan for Britain’s changing housing needs and invest in a long-term strategy as a matter of urgency.