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Markets & Geopolitics

Age-old problems: Housing the elderly

Across the developed world, mainstream housing stock is failing the needs of ageing populations. As life expectancies continue to increase, the so too must accessibility and mobility standards.

Brian Ward, Editor, RICS
26 February 2020

According to United Nations predictions, a quarter of people living in Europe and North America could be aged 65 and over by 2050. This raises a simple but significant question – will our current housing stock be suitable for this older population?

Julia Park, architect and Head of Housing Research at Levitt Bernstein, believes the ‘short answer is that the UK specifically is not very suitable. 93 per cent of homes fail to meet current accessibility standards, which is not a not a good statistic. We have greater problems with older stock, but we're not anywhere near where we should be with new builds either.’

Similar issues exist in the United States, and Dr Jennifer Molinsky, Senior Research Associate with the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, notes that less than four per cent of housing stock is ‘minimally accessible’ (definition: that a wheelchair user could potentially get through the front door).

Indeed, a clear problem within the issue of accessibility is how low the standards are, and Molinsky states that minimally accessible doesn’t even account for essentials such as whether or not the bathroom is accessible. In addition to questions of accessibility, it’s also important to remember that issues such as fuel poverty disproportionately affect the elderly population. As Dr Alison Pooley, Deputy Head of the School for Architecture and Planning at Anglia Ruskin University notes, retrofits that address this issue can be a significant comfort to the older population, while also helping to meet carbon emission targets.

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Rethinking cities for ageing populations

With much of the world facing the twin phenomena of declining birth rates and longer life expectancies – according to the UN, by 2050, a quarter of the population in Europe and Northern America could be aged 65 or over – how can cities best plan and provide for an ageing population?

Synergistic retrofitting

Universal design solutions, such as changes to door handles or taps that allow everyone to use them will be a necessity. However, multi-storey housing, while a mainstay of UK towns and cities, represents a massive logistical problem when it comes to providing the space to retrofit mobility standards into housing on a national scale. Molinsky notes that there is an additional challenge to introduce mobility fittings before residents need to rely on them, rather than afterwards – an issue that runs alongside the problem of financing retrofits in general. Because of a lack of funding, most people will be forced to wait until absolutely necessary before undertaking mobility works, which is likely to be at a time when they can least afford the alterations.

A lack of funding means that most people will be forced to wait until absolutely necessary before undertaking mobility works, which is likely to be at a time when they can least afford the alterations.

In addition to improving accessibility, the climate emergency urgently necessitates a change in how homes are heated and insulated. Combining the two projects into one job is unlikely to add much complexity and would probably achieve some savings compared to doing both individually. However, as Pooley notes, legislation on this issue ‘has been lagging, as it has been with environmental responsive buildings’, so it will take a significant sea change from incumbent governments in the UK and US to address the issue properly.

Stay home or downsize?

Another question that arises with regards to housing for an ageing population regards the pros and cons of staying in the same house or apartment rather than moving to an assisted living facility or downsizing. Although it’s often assumed that people will want to stay in their own home, Pooley adds ‘that doesn't necessarily mean ageing in place is liberating and happy, so we have to ensure that people are ageing in place, rather than trapped in place’. There is already significant evidence to show that managing the ageing process efficiently with early interventions, rather than treating acute injury or dealing with severe issues undiagnosed until later in life, will save money for healthcare systems.

We have to ensure that people are ageing in place, rather than trapped in place.

Alison Pooley
School for Architecture and Planning, Anglia Ruskin University

One of the reasons people do not want to leave their homes is the fear of losing the community with which they’ve formed a connection over years or decades. This is particularly acute in the low-density suburbs of the United States, as high-density housing is generally required to make ageing living options affordable and to provide suitable support to residents. From a commercial perspective there are a range of models such as co-housing and multi-generational living that can make ageing at home or assisted living affordable for retirees or people near retirement. Bringing an architect and occupational therapist on board when planning a project will provide the most benefit to their residents says Park.

Accessible for all

It’s important to remember that an older population can provide significant benefits to towns and cities as a community that is more likely to make use of high street facilities. In order to maximise this experience, towns and cities have to remove as many barriers to accessibility as possible. Simple changes such as increasing pedestrian crossing times and making audible messages ubiquitous will remove much of the stress of traversing towns and cities and open them up to older people to enjoy, while simultaneously benefiting businesses and people of all ages.