Older people and Housing: towards a wiser community

Older people and Housing: towards a wiser community

Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman

More people are living healthier lives for longer, but despite the impact of this demographic change out of date views of older people prevail. Issues to do with housing reveal many anachronisms: assumptions (especially about physical and mental capacities), segregation, ageism and blaming. It could be so much better.

Housing is almost exclusively talked about as a crisis for young people, a shortage of so-called starter homes. The real issue, if we are to plan housing with the needs of the whole population in mind is the shortage of smaller homes. But in the public mind, accommodation issues for older people are mainly about residential care, and its failures. A decreasing proportion of people over 65 are in residential care: only 3.7%.(1) The majority of the older population need housing as much as anyone else and are both part of the problem and of the solution.

In the research for our book,(2) we identified the ways in which older people are viewed in society. Over 65s are often ignored, and if attention is paid at all to this group, their wants and needs are assumed, rather than explored, and often stereotyped. We found these examples: the belief that old and young cannot coexist in residential areas; people over 60 like age-restricted communities, despite there being more than three generations in that group; age-blaming, in this case for hoarding spare rooms and causing the shortage of housing.

The New Age of Ageing suggests that we need to adopt better ways of approaching social and economic issues, challenging ageist stereotypes and embracing age-integration that will benefit everyone.

What do older people want in housing?
We begin where policy should – with what older people say they want. In our interviews with older people the dominant fear when contemplating their future was becoming dependent upon others through the loss of physical or mental capacities. The people we spoke to wanted to remain in their own homes for as long as possible.

Homes become more important as people age, being sites of comfort, familiarity, belonging and security. Supporting older people to remain in their own homes may require practical adaptations. Many people would like to downsize. Perhaps as many as 3.5 million over 60 would move to smaller houses if they were available.(3)

Staying in one’s own place, even a new smaller place, can require support, often becoming more onerous over time. Family members can find themselves in increasingly difficult dilemmas about supporting an older member in the face of other commitments and increasing need. Some older individuals feel conflicted by the burdens they are placing on their family. Arguments that families should provide the necessary support are not sustainable: not everyone has a family, or family nearby, or family members able to support them. Support is a wider social responsibility.

The research into factors supporting a good quality of life is relevant here, developed for older people but applicable to all ages. Research into this topic suggests that six factors are at work,(4) in the order of significance listed below:

Having a role
Support networks
Income and wealth
Having time

The importance of social connections is evident in the first two factors.

We question how segregated housing for older people – retirement villages, sheltered communities, even gated arrangements – can be a major part of the solution to the housing crisis. Everyone misses out on the benefits of older people’s participation within our communities when older people are separated. Segregated housing may serve the interests of retirement builders and developers, but cannot promote age-integrated communities.

Wise Communities
The concepts of age-friendly and dementia-friendly communities are already established. We have taken these concepts further to promote the ideal of wise communities. Wisdom, defined as reflection on experience to draw out overarching insights and learning, is found in people of all ages. Communities can be wise in the sense that they develop conditions and processes that promote the wellbeing of all members, whatever their age, through active participation. Currently it appears that the wisdom of the old is a wasted resource. Certainly many older people experience themselves as ignored. Here are two typical voices from our research.

‘We have no meaningful input into society any more. Our slowly gained wisdom is not required.’ (Margaret, 71).

‘They don’t listen to my opinions, because I am old. I don’t offer them. I know about things. … Wisdom is not that well received. It’s one of the reasons why care for the elderly is such a mess – because older people’s views are not heard. ‘(Elizabeth, 89)

Our communities need the experience and wisdom, the participation of older people just as much as any other age group. There are four factors that would help move our communities towards wisdom.

First, locally generated housing solutions, in response to local demands and priorities, rather than through central determination. The Localism Act of 2011 opened up possibilities here.

Second, integrated planning at the national and local levels. The human damage and suffering caused by the lack of integration between social and health care is already evident. Planning that integrates the needs of the whole population is necessary.

Third, national policy currently promotes property ownership and neglects other forms of tenure. The housing market and building are fuelled not by the human need for shelter, but by the sad fact that in the UK land and property are used for investment and capital savings. This does not encourage affordable new building.

Fourth policy needs to shift away from the focus on ownership in favour of all forms of tenure. Kate Barker is an economist, author of the Barker Review into Housing Supply (2004), and Housing: Where’s the plan? (2014). She recently told the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs that fiscal and housing policies are currently ‘totally un-joined-up. (5) Fourth, age-blaming, specifically with regard to the housing shortage must be challenged because it is an unproductive diversion which does not move us towards a solution to the chronic lack of housing.

Modelling a variety of solutions
Some innovative examples show the incipient forms of wise communities that are already being established and have aspects that can be replicated and evolved within different contexts. In the Home Share scheme a young person is provided with accommodation in return for domestic services and social contact with the homeowner, an older person. Barbara Clapham (97), living with Beth Cook (26), said, ‘all my contemporaries have gone, which is boring. So it’s nice to have someone round the place’. This scheme ensures that the older person is not isolated, and that they have some domestic support. It’s a Win-Win situation.

Cohousing is very strong in Denmark and Holland, but is only slowly taking off here in the UK. These schemes provide for independence within a supportive and age-mixed environment. Participants are usually active in the project, sharing specific professional or practical skills with the community and contributing to the shared governance structure. It takes time and energy to develop such projects. Two particular obstacles are negotiating mortgage arrangements that satisfy lenders and finding accessible land for building projects. These are mainly grass-root schemes, although some have been supported by local authorities.

OWCH (Older Women’s CoHousing) has just opened its second project in Barnet. In Essex the LoCo group (London Countryside Housing Group) are developing a project for 23 homes, open to men and women. In Lilac Grove in Leeds a cohousing project with 20 homes has been established and another in Cambridge, called K1, has been set up with 40 homes. These two projects have been supported by the city councils, which see their potential contribution to housing stock.

One community which, embraces many of the features of a wise community, is the garden village of New Earswick near York. Maintained by the Joseph Rowntree Trust, the village has schools, a Folk Hall, sports facilities, shops and a surgery. It provides opportunities for community involvement and volunteering through the Residents and Community Association. The Trust aims to provide appropriate housing for people throughout their lives. Bryony (81) described to us two advantages of the integrated approach she observed during a visit she made to a former neighbour now living in Earswick:

‘The most positive aspect for me, when we saw round the old age part of New Earswick, was that the nursery was in the complex where my old neighbour lived. The residents were encouraged to go in and read to or play with the children. Also, although our neighbour was living on her own in a little house, she subsequently had a stroke. But because of the set up she could be looked after and nursed in-house.

As Eccles said in the Goon Show, ‘Everybody’s gotta be somewhere’.

Changes in attitudes towards older people are needed in all aspects of social practice including housing. We must solve these problems in a ways that integrate older people’s needs and wants in the planning and development of solutions.


(1) ONS (2013) What does the 2011 Census tell us about older people? London: ONS.
(2) The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change (2016) Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, Policy Press: Bristol.
(3) Wood, C. (2013) Top of the Ladder. London: DEMOS.
(4) Nazroo, J. (2005) Ethnic Inequalities in Quality of Life at Older Ages. ESRC-funded Research L480254020.
(5) House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs (2016) Building More Homes. House of Lords, HL Paper: 20 July 19th 2016, para 59.


Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman have previously worked at the Institute of Education, University of London, and continue to develop their research and writing careers