Healthy ageing and the importance of our homes

With its rapidly ageing population, the failure to provide enough age-friendly homes is fast becoming a further facet to the housing crisis in the UK. To tackle this we need a better understanding of ageing and the challenges it poses to our housing infrastructure.

As part of our Future of Housing blog series and to complement CPC’s Housing Innovation Week, Bin Guan, Built Environment Researcher at Connected Places Catapult discusses the challenges we face in providing homes for an increasingly ageing population.

The hidden ‘housing crisis’

It’s already widely believed that there is a ‘housing crisis’ in the UK. However, while the focus is all too often trained on the unmet needs of first-time buyers. Housing of elderly, and the demands of an ageing population are all too frequently going unconsidered.

The UK’s population is ageing fast. Within the next decade, one-fifth of the total population will be over 65 years old. This will increase to one quarter by 2050. However, only 1% of Britons in their 60s are living in tailor-made retirement homes. Not only is there a supply shortage of age-friendly homes, but there is also a lack of understanding of what the elderly need from their homes. Although they tend to be categorised as one demographic, the elderly’s housing needs are highly diversified, varying across age, income, health, personal preference and care requirement. For instance, the needs of an able-bodied 70-year old will be very different from someone ten years their junior with disabilities or a frailer 80-year old.

According to an APPG report, 96% of the elderly in the UK are living in mainstream housing, and most hope to live independently at home for their entire life. As the UK has the oldest housing stock in the EU, the existing homes of the elderly are also greatly diversified, ranging from Victorian houses to bungalows and tower blocks, all the way through to modern new builds. There is simply no one-size-fits-all solution for later-life housing. While new-builds can be made fit-for-purpose, how we retrofit our varied existing housing stock to suit the diverse needs of an ageing population is yet another critical challenge for the UK housing sector.

Housing, health and care

An LGA report states that nearly 50% of people over 65 are living with a limiting long-term illness or disability and that health starts to deteriorate significantly from 75 years of age. As older people are disproportionately likely to live in poor-quality or unadaptable housing, this further affects their health and adds further burdens to existing healthcare services. Therefore ‘care’ also needs to be a key element of retirement home infrastructure, compared to general needs housing.

However, only 0.6% of over-65s live in homes with care in the UK, which is 10 times less than more mature markets such as the US and Australia. And, although there has already been lots of discussion and initiatives proposed on addressing the general housing crisis and elderly care issues, there is simply not enough integrated thinking combining the two.

For instance, in the NHS Long Term Plan, there is limited mention of housing, adaptation or repair. Meanwhile, in local housing strategies, around two-thirds of councils lack any policy relating to housing supply for the elderly, let alone housing with care. As suggested in the APPG report, we should be working to integrate housing into healthcare strategies and vice versa.

Location, availability and affordability

As with first-time buyers, the main drivers behind later-life housing choices are location, availability and affordability.

A RIBA report shows that of the elderly who consider moving home, a majority would prefer to have local facilities like shops, libraries and GP surgeries within walking distance. And, for those who wish to stay where they are, 85% of them do so to remain in the neighbourhood they are familiar with. In both scenarios, easy access to local facilities and social cohesion could play a significant role in maintaining physical and mental health, allowing the elderly to live independently for longer. To achieve this, there needs to be greater consideration of location and its context to the wider neighbourhood.

In the retirement housing market, high-end specialist housing currently caters well for the wealthy few and sheltered rent meets the demands of those without housing wealth. It’s actually the middle market – an 80% majority – with limited housing wealth that finds themselves with restricted options for age-friendly housing. For those considering adapting their homes, due to the complex process, it can be difficult to find the right information on how to do it, while home improvement agencies and local handyman services are only able to meet the needs of just a fraction of those that need it.

Due to an increased requirement for communal facilities and shared services, specialist housing tends to cost more than general-needs housing and is mostly leasehold. For those considering downsizing or simply moving, high fees and leasehold service charges tend to hold them back. Especially for that 80% demographic with limited housing wealth, they may not have enough to buy a new home outright. A typical residential care place can cost between £380–£700 per week on average, which is a significant expense for most self-funding older people. For those living in social or the private rented sector, rising rent levels are leading to increased poverty, making people less capable of affording to buy their own home in their lifetime.

Ageing in place

To provide better housing for this increasingly ageing population, we face a lot of challenges. As well as the above, other issues include the general failure in meeting decent home standards and accessibility standards, the higher development costs that disincentivise investment in retirement housing, and the lack of a dedicated use class for retirement housing that leads to Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 charge regardless of the wider social benefits it brings. Although ageing in place won’t be easy to achieve, we should still be guided by the opportunities it could bring.

One study shows the contribution of over 65s to the UK economy is £61 billion per year. Having the right housing in place could keep the elderly active for longer, contributing further to the economy. According to Savills, the amount of retirement housing delivered each year could save the government up to £310 million. It follows, therefore, that as more is delivered, so the savings and benefits to the economy increase. It is estimated that over-65s own more than 40% of the housing equity in the UK, so retirement housing has the potential to unlock some of this vast wealth. As 24% of people over 55 are considering moving home, of which 1.8 million are actively looking to downsize, this could also potentially free up a large number of family-size homes to meet part of the current housing shortage.

While the younger generation could gradually climb up the housing ladder, later-life housing – and, in most cases, peoples’ last home – should be considered the pinnacle of one’s housing journey, and not a compromise. With this in mind, providing homes for a healthy, ageing population should doubtlessly be prioritised in both the policy and commercial agenda. There should be further research and discussion to help us better understand the challenges of later-life housing, coupled with more policy support, investment and innovation to help leverage the potential of this emerging market area.


The State of Ageing in 2019 – Centre for Ageing Better, 2019

Neighbourhoods of the Future – Agile Ageing Alliance, 2019

A home for the ages: planning for the future with age-friendly design – Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), 2019

Inquiry into decent and accessible homes for older people – APPG Ageing and older people, 2019

Retirement Living – Savills, 2018

Healthy Homes: Accommodating an Ageing Population – Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), 2018

Housing our Ageing Population – Local Government Association (LGA), 2017

The Other End of the Housing Market – Housing for Older People – Winckworth Sherwood (Law firm), 2017

This blog is one in a series and is part of our new Future of Housing programme. Find out more about our work in this area by visiting our new Future of Housing hub.

Our Future of Housing blog series is intended as a platform for open debate. Views expressed are not necessarily those of Connected Places Catapult.