The rapidly increasing aging of our population is becoming one of the greatest social changes of our era. Although the age of retirement is creeping closer to 70, many of us can now expect to live until 100, or more. This will not only impact the national health service and social care but also the national budget as pensioners become one of our largest groups in society. Finding new ways to keep our seniors keep fit and healthy must be a top priority but one place to start is by providing suitable housing options that maintain their independence for longer and accommodate the challenges of old age.
Eight out of 10 older people say they would like to downsize, but only three out of 10 actually do so. The main stumbling block is the shortage of well-designed, high-quality, appropriate and attractive housing in the right place for this market.
To help readdress this imbalance, the University of Sheffield’s Designing for Wellbeing in Environments for Later Life (DWELL) research project looked at the contribution design can make to ensuring mobility and wellbeing are at the heart of older people’s housing and neighbourhoods.
Involving a team from architecture, social science, planning and public health, DWELL concluded that retirement housing must provide a balance between an ageing person’s changing competencies and the environment in which they live their everyday life. Mobility plays a major role in defining well-being and the desire for connection with the external world will help combat isolation and promotes mental health.
The research showed that the models of housing that work for older people are those that allow people to remain in one place throughout their life course. It must have the ability to adapt to changing needs; has two-to-three bedrooms with lots of storage (for a lifetime’s possessions); space for buggies, charging mobility scooters and favourite pieces of furniture; accessible bathrooms; and is supported by the ‘internet of things’.
Housing for older people needs to be close to shops, services and cultural facilities, and connect well to the public realm. Good public transport links are essential, as are public toilets and benches for resting, to encourage walking. Access to shared, open, green spaces is good for mental health. What works for this age group works for all of us, and if we were to apply this to our cities it would help create stable, multigenerational communities, where older people could play a visible and active role in communal life.
Seniors can use their buying power, as discerning consumers, to raise housing standards. A wider diversity of players is needed in the market, and more subsidised retirement housing must be built for those who have no choices. Spending money on the built environment ‘upstream’ can save money on mental, physical and social problems ‘downstream’. This would result in happier, healthier, more diverse, stable and resilient communities – something that would benefit us all.