Why do homes and places matter when it comes to ageing?

As our population ages, we must have homes built to support healthy longevity.

Choosing a place to call home is one of the most important decisions we make in our lives. Everything from comfort and community to facilities and access plays a significant role in keeping us happy and healthy, but when it comes to homes that support a healthy future, it’s almost impossible to make a decision that will work for a lifetime.

Over the next decade, the number of people over 65 in the UK will rise from 11.7 million to 14.3 million, and by 2050 they will account for a quarter of the population.

As society ages, so too do our homes, and with the oldest housing stock in Europe, there’s an urgent need to accelerate home-centred solutions that support an ageing society and ‘add life to years’.

The Government recognises housing is a crucial health-related service, and according to its 2014 Memorandum of Understanding to support joint action on improving health through the home, key features of the right home environment are:

  • It is warm and affordable to heat
  • It is free from hazards, safe from harm and promotes a sense of security
  • It enables movement around the home and is accessible, including to visitors
  • There is support from others if needed

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us more aware of both the benefits and shortcomings of our homes and local areas. Lockdowns have highlighted the value of proximity to open spaces, local facilities and strong community support networks.

In this blog, we explore what it is about homes and places that make them so integral to living a long and healthy life, from where we live to the technologies we can use.

Through the Homes for Healthy Ageing programme, Connected Places Catapult wants to establish a path that supports innovative, scalable solutions that integrate with our existing infrastructure and care provisions.

Location 

Location is often the principal driver when it comes to choosing a home – especially one for a family – but our local area won’t always serve us as our needs and priorities change. While job proximity and schools are two major factors for people searching for their first family home, these of course lose importance after retirement. We may wish to live closer to our children and grandchildren or within walking distance of a gym, open space or community centre, and if we develop health and mobility needs, access to healthcare and support becomes more important.

Poor access to local healthcare doesn’t just have an impact on physical health; it has serious implications for mental health too. According to research commissioned by the Centre for Ageing Better elderly people who reported having poor physical health were also more likely to register their mood as low. Some respondents were less likely to meet up with friends and act spontaneously if a health issue was playing up, with one person stating: “If my hip didn’t hurt, I’d phone my friend Sharon and say, ‘what are you doing tomorrow for lunch?’”

This highlights the importance not only of ensuring that everyone has access to adequate healthcare (whether local or at-home) but also that those with health needs have the right emotional support and sense of community (perhaps through age-friendly communities) to help keep spirits up even when physical health is poor.

When it comes to location, co-living solutions can help address feelings of isolation and loneliness while strengthening community bonds. There are a range of co-living models that includes intergenerational living and housing association pairing schemes.

To move or make the best of it

The homes in which our elderly find themselves when nests empty and retirement beckons are usually not suited to their changing needs. From trip hazards and mobility obstacles to unaffordable heating and repairs, for many, moving to a new home might seem like the best option.

However, finding a suitable new, ‘right sized’ home is not easy – navigating the options from a smaller, better-equipped property through sheltered housing to assisted living and beyond can be a daunting prospect. There is a need to provide better signposting and support to older people who are considering relocating.

In any event, moving is often not desirable if this would entail moving away from familiar social support networks. 80% of the over 65s surveyed said they had no plans to move home and many reported being willing to accept a home that’s less suited to their needs as they age in order to remain close to their social networks.

For those for whom moving isn’t the right choice, the priority then becomes ensuring newly built homes meet long term needs and making existing homes fit for purpose.

Retrofit technologies and features

Most newly built homes are still only suited to the able-bodied. A staggering 91% of homes do not provide even the lowest level of accessibility, which means those with medical or mobility needs who wish to remain in their homes require retrofit solutions that integrate with local care provisions.

Examples of healthtech and smart home solutions which might meet some of these needs include personal alarms throughout the home to alert emergency services and/or relatives in the event of falls or other risks, advanced plugs and light bulbs, and memory aids for those living with dementia. 

We can also learn a lot from well-designed retirement villages and independent-living communities. Simple features such as skylights can bring in light and boost one’s mood, while modern remote-controlled furniture and fixtures can help support mobility without losing the sense of homeliness.

Homes and places can unlock a healthier future, but for many older people, the potential costs of improvements and adaptations present too big a hurdle. This is why Connected Places Catapult is seeking to accelerate innovation and care solutions that are designed to support the whole population. We’re working to meet the Government’s Grand Challenge Mission of ensuring people enjoy at least five extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experience of the richest and poorest.

As announced last month, we have now selected our first two testbed location partners for our programme. Our testbed with Sunderland City Council will focus on the local challenge of Damp and Cold Homes; and our testbed with a Northern Ireland Consortium will focus on testing and demonstrating innovations to tackle social isolation and loneliness in Belfast. We will share insights from the testbeds throughout the coming months.

About Homes for Healthy Ageing

Connected Places Catapult is connecting UK businesses and non-profits with funding, testing and research opportunities to accelerate innovation that fully supports the diverse needs of the UK’s ageing population.

To find out more about these opportunities and how you can help build a healthy ageing future, fill out our Expression of Interest Form or email homesforhealthyageing@cp.catapult.org.uk.

If you are an SME interested in responding to our Open Call for solutions to be demonstrated in our first two testbeds, please join our next webinar on 15 September 2021 to hear more details on how to apply and about the local challenges being tackled by our location partners.  

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