Challenging the fundamental approach to housing for older people

By Nick Sedgwick · 4 July 2023

Are we at something of a cross-roads for housing for older people, what many call retirement housing, independent living, or sheltered housing?

The basic premise of this type of housing is that all residents pay a uniform, relatively low charge for low level preventative services. These services were largely provided by what were called wardens, but are now probably referred to as scheme managers or independent living managers. Everyone contributes to the costs of the service whether they need them or not. Residents often say the key attraction is they ‘want someone there – just in case’. The scheme managers do much more than this – often much more than their role profile requires. On this basis, retirement housing has been a very effective preventative service, helping to avoid the need for residents to have higher levels of care and support. However, this has often been difficult to prove in terms of cash saving for health and social care.

There have been a couple of challenges to this approach. The loss of Supporting People funding was mainly seen 10 to 15 years ago but residents were largely happy to pay this extra cost, reflecting the value of the service to them. More recently, many areas are seeing an increasing proportion of new residents who have no need for the support provided by retirement housing and they are less willing to pay for it. The housing crisis has led to many people in their 50s and 60s just needing somewhere to live and retirement housing has been the easiest way to get a new home. Some of these new residents come with a range of complex needs not related to their age.

So while demographic changes mean there are more people living longer and retirement housing has a key role in supporting residents to maintain their independence, services also need to work with younger residents who have different expectations and don’t want the traditional service but may have other needs.

Our experience is that an increasing number of landlords are tackling this issue by questioning the fundamental basis for retirement living. This is often driven by local authority social care departments who are trying to respond to the needs of the ageing population. The growth of extra care housing is one response but many areas are now looking at other schemes to see whether they could contribute more to meeting identified needs. This includes considering raising the minimum age for residents, applying additional assessments of need or targeting different client groups.

These may be the appropriate responses to local circumstances but there needs to be an assessment whether the existing schemes and services are suitable. Many retirement schemes were built 50 or more years ago so they may not offer good accessibility and the standards of accommodation many expect today. The existing low level support service available to all may not be the right response to the changing needs of residents. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Housing and Care for Older People recently recognised these issues with Lord Best announcing that the Group’s latest inquiry will focus on how best to regenerate the existing supply of outdated sheltered housing.

Tackling issues around retirement housing often drops down the list of things to do for landlords because they never appear to be quite as pressing as other priorities. However, in some cases the repeated delay in tackling the issues now means there are decisions to be made. We have many years of experience in completing these fundamental reviews of the assets and the services to allow landlords to make informed decisions and to implement change working with residents and partner organisations. We work with landlords to understand the strategic environment, the current and future demand, the views of residents and partners, the quality of accommodation and services, the investment requirements and the options for each scheme. If you would like to find out more about our work  contact Nick Sedgwick, Associate Director, at nsedgwick@arkconsultancy.co.uk or call 0121 5153831.

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