The shock of lockdown has encouraged many people to re-think their living arrangements.
Older people who live alone have found themselves isolated for months. Loneliness had already been recognised as a real issue for the less mobile and those without family nearby, and being trapped at home has really highlighted mental health issues.
On the other hand, the lack of support for care homes and media attention have made these residential settings look like the last place you’d want to be in a crisis.
That’s left a growing number of people looking for a middle ground, and for many that could be a type of sheltered housing. Organisations contributing to the ICUK conversation around making housing for older adults more inclusive have reported a significant rise in enquiries about their supported and independent living schemes.
But even these communal living arrangements have struggled during the pandemic, as they attempt to protect their residents and staff while still helping them to engage.
So, what can we learn from this experience for future housing for older people?
Social relationships are really important
A strong sense of community is important to the happiness of residents according to respondents to the first phase of the Diversity in Care Environments (DICE) study carried out by the University of Bristol in collaboration with ILC and the Housing Learning and Improvement Network (Housing LIN) about making housing for older adults more inclusive.
Those who answered the survey mentioned a general ethos that makes them feel included, such as community spirit, active get togethers, and friendly neighbours.
Those running sheltered housing facilities point to a communal area as being hugely important. Not only can the space be used to bring residents together for coffee mornings, film showings and much more, but outside agencies can come in to run events, such as exercise classes.
Access to easy technology is a must
One thing we’ve certainly learned from this experience is that technology is going to play a huge role in how people of all ages communicate and interact with the world.
If older people can Zoom or WhatsApp or House Party, they have a much richer way of keeping in touch with family and friends than simply using the phone. If they have safe access to the internet, they can order their groceries and other shopping to be delivered, avoiding the anxiety of not being able to get hold of even essentials.
The NHS is driving towards digital care. Some GP surgeries are talking about stopping their telephone services for repeat prescriptions, and asking patients to order online or in person. That’s not easy if you have restricted mobility or no internet. Video consultations are also on the rise, but you need the technology to benefit.
And for the people who do need the comfort of knowing that help is out there if they do have a problem at home, there are a growing number of technology-based services that can help. While some are phone-based, the availability of the internet is crucial for others.
Some communities do already offer wifi in communal areas, but wifi availability in each residence should become the norm, along with education on how to use the technology.
The whole environment matters
What else could and should feature in housing for older people in the future? The Housing for Ageing Population Panel for Innovation (HAPPI) has already been looking at the bigger picture. Building on their suggestions, there’s a whole list of specifications that can make later life living more enjoyable and safe:
- Space inside a home to enable people to be active
- Room for live-in carers
- The importance of natural light, offering the opportunity watch the world go by
- Balconies that offer an outside space and fresh air if no other open spaces are available
- Access to open spaces as gardens, parks or allotments
- Front door designs that allow for infection control in general and safe deliveries in particular
- Affordable, energy-efficient and easy-to-control heating
- Extra storage space outside the residence
- Parking for cars, bikes, mobility scooters, and access to other transport
That’s quite a wish list, especially for residences that are already built. And clearly offering a wide range of facilities is at odds with trying to provide affordable homes. It’s a challenge for developers and local authorities who need to be planning for an ageing population.