Housing an Ageing Population

DMA Architect Paul Wells discusses some of the issues society faces in housing an ageing population and provides examples of innovations in the marketplace.

Within the UK we are experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of people living into old age. The average age within the UK has now reached the late 30’s and almost half of all babies born today are projected to live to be 100. Not only are people on average living longer but they are also more healthy and active to a later age.

By 2031 it is projected that the number of over 85’s in London will double but interestingly only 10-15% will require specialist housing.

The baby boomers of the post war years, who are now in their late 60’s, are a predominantly wealthy sector of society and they, for the most part, are sitting on a property portfolio gold mine with the vast majority still living in the 3 bed+ family home even though many are either living alone or as a couple. Within the UK’s heated housing market the challenge is to provide these people with a will to move before health reasons dictate therefore releasing vital family sized properties to the next generation.

In the past there has been a tendency for retirement homes to be seen as both a down-sizing and a down grading of people’s homes and life style. This has meant many retirees are disinclined to move on. The old adage of working up the housing ladder to the detached home and then selling up for a small retirement flat is no longer the accepted norm and as designers we need to take up the mantle to design aspirational places retirees want to move to and live in.

We are not talking about Care Home facilities here, a sector for which there will always be a need; we are talking here about retirement villages of the sort common in Europe and America. Places people aspire to live in once they reach a certain age where stress and worry-free living are paramount, alongside companionship and independence. In the UK we are starting to make headway in this field and it is a sector of design that is both challenging and exciting.

In 2013 HAPPI (Housing our Aging Population Panel for Innovation) produced a report that closely reviewed the problems we face as a society in ensuring that the elderly are not the ‘forgotten’ sector. To do this a panel travelled around Europe looking at how our continental neighbours have created homes people want to move too, places where families live side by side with the elderly and where community focused activities bring all generations together.

One seemingly core value was to create a community hub at the heart of any retirement complex.

Often this would be healthcare related but it could also be nursery care, a cafe or restaurant or a community facility.  One development in Groningen, Netherlands, created an internal double volume hub termed the ‘indoor town square’ and is used for markets, concerts and community gatherings.

Within the UK new homes for the elderly should not be seen as ‘God’s waiting room’. People want to move to a place where they have space to take the majority of their acquired belongs and sentimental possessions. They want to live somewhere where they are secure, comfortable and relaxed but also connected to the community. Traditional migration to the coast is no longer as common with increasing numbers of retirees choosing to return to the city to benefit from the good transportation links, amenities and social activities the city offers. With this in mind the country model of a horizontal retirement village can be taken to a vertical one, creating comfortable homes with integrated restaurants, gyms, spas, community hubs and health care facilities.

As architects and interior designers, this is a sector in which we believe we can make a difference, designing enviable and desirable homes.