Do we still want separatist housing for older people?

olderpeoplehousingAt the end of 2012 the All Party Parliamentary Group on Housing and Care for Older People published its HAPPI2 report. And when it comes to housing and older people it must be regarded as an important benchmark. After all, it carries the authority of a cross-party group of MPs and peers and it draws evidence from 18 senior people from government departments, architects, housing providers and charitable organisations.

The thrust of the report is that we’ve come a long way (and we have) from the dark days of the 1970s and 80s when sheltered housing was reported by researchers as ‘the greatest breakthrough in the housing scene since the war’ and the ‘obvious choice for most elderly people’. Having said this, although the housing provided locked us into thinking that small, often bedsit, accommodation was fine for older people; it did at that time represent a vast improvement on the slums and tenements in which many older people often struggled to live. I am a witness to this having been responsible for the letting of Glasgow’s sheltered housing at the time.

The HAPPI2 report, to its credit, celebrates the changes in our thinking in that we now recognise, when it comes to older people, that there is a real need for decent space standards including two bedrooms for all. It calls, furthermore, for us to build on the kind of thinking that underpinned the development of ‘Lifetime Homes’ that were pioneered by Habinteg Housing Association. We can begin to believe, in this context, that some of the patronising thinking that gave us a thousand years of almshouses and sheltered housing (their direct offspring) is now a thing of the past.

But alas, HAPPI2 only moves us forward a short distance. We might agree with its laudation of the ‘brilliance’ of ExtraCare housing at least in respect of the design of individual dwellings. After all, good dwelling design means manageability for a wide range of older people. And it provides a context within which assistive technologies can play their part and personal care and support can be exchanged. But that brilliance of ExtraCare can appear rather tarnished when we consider the HAPPI2 report’s at least implied subscription to the old sheltered housing legacy of separation and segregation.

There is a moral and ethical issue here. Do we truly want to nurture and maintain integrated communities where older and younger people are both seen as active and contributing members? Or do we still want to pursue the separatist and segregationist policies and practices of the past?

HAPPI2 wants to see a ‘boost’ in supply of ‘homes for older people’ and, by strong inference, it sees the form of such developments as reflecting some of the attitudes of yesteryear. A report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation appears to endorse that perspective in arguing the need for ‘an increase in specialist housing of between 40% and 70% over the next 20 years’. The saving grace for HAPPI2 might be the passing reference to achieving ‘age-inclusive housing’ – a matter that begins to hint at new and better ways of considering ‘housing for older people’. The Rowntree report refers to the need for ‘a change of products’ though it is not clear what to!

The context is one, of course, that relates to demographics. It is truly ‘brilliant’ that we have increasing numbers of older people. The disaster lies in our collective failure to harness the skills, knowledge and energy of so many of them. Thankfully the scrapping of the default retirement age removes one of the pillars of prejudice that have shaped our thinking about older people (and gave a chronological marker for older age that had nothing to do with people’s health and wellness). As a consequence of this and, thankfully, our increasing wish to harness the energy of older people, we really must now robustly question the notion of ‘specialist’ housing for older people.

It’s not, after all, as if older people are some different form of humanity that requires them to be herded together and be ‘done to’. Neither is it as if we can expect increasing levels of dependency for what has been sometimes (totally inappropriately) termed a ‘tsunami’ of older people. It’s too bad, therefore, that through the process of enforced retirement and through the maintaining of housing, health and social care service approaches that often foster dependency, that the increasing needs have (at least in part) resulted.

So where should this take us? It should, in the first instance, take us away from the centuries old ideas about specialist housing provision towards designs that are just fine for us all. It should take us away from patronising notions of ‘doing good to the old folk’ by providing separate ‘schemes’ and towards facilitating greater integration in our communities. And it should take us towards service approaches that endeavour to empower and motivate people regardless of their age. One of the keys to this is, of course, good dwelling design and HAPPI2 has at least got this bit right.

  •  Dr Malcolm Fisk is Co-Director of the Ageing Society Grand Challenge Initiative at Coventry University.
Malcolm Fisk
Dr Malcolm Fisk is co-director of the Age Research Centre at Coventry University


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