Housing for older people: We need to talk to our elders and listen to what they say

The only way to effectively meet housing need for people in later life is to ask them about their requirements and aspirations, writes Alpha Living’s Graeme Foster 

ALL sides agree that we are in the grip of a housing crisis and very often the narrative focuses on young generations and families struggling to get their first foot on the housing ladder.

Graeme Foster
Graeme Foster, chief executive, Alpha Living

But what about our over 65s, who are expected to make up a quarter of the UK’s population by 2046*. Where do they want to live and how can we provide the right homes for them as a nation?

Housing is, quite rightly, high on the political agenda but I believe there isn’t nearly enough discussion and action on providing the right homes for people of all ages. At Alpha we specialise in homes for people in later life and I am proud to see how our ethos is challenging attitudes towards what is traditionally known as ‘sheltered housing’.

When I was starting out as a graduate trainee (a certain number of years ago), sheltered housing was stereotypically somewhere that held a poorly attended bingo session and had a ‘warden’ who would act as a kindly neighbour.

Fast forward to 2019. When I visit our Alpha developments, I meet people who are more active than ever, taking on new experiences, enjoying living in and taking pride in their homes and having a voice.

We enable people to be active rather than doing things for them. This is the vision of sheltered housing that I would like Alpha and the country as a whole to be striving for.

I also know that there is always more we can do and more we can learn to make a positive difference to the lives of older people. That is why we launched ‘Alpha’s Big Conversation’ last year to make a concerted effort to get to know our residents, understand what they want out of life, and to learn how we can take action.

Some views we expected to hear, others surprised us, but this process of listening and learning is influencing every decision we make as a business and a landlord. We learned that our residents don’t see themselves as ‘old’, that staying active in mind and body is a big priority and that ill-health and often a sense of pride can create barriers. We learned that many of our residents are tech savvy and enjoy using the likes of WhatsApp to stay connected with friends and family. This insight is guiding how we improve our existing services and how we develop new ones.

Construction is about to start at our new 78-apartment extra care development in Wirral. Our scheme in Saughall Massie will be a desirable place to live, built in red brick and timber and featuring balconies and bays. It will have an attractive courtyard and its own bistro and hair salon which will be open to the public — because we know the value and importance of encouraging integrated communities.

In addition, all residents will have access to care and support services on site tailored to their needs. More than a building, it is somewhere people will want to live and a place they can live the active, independent lives they aspire to and be their best. As one person told us “this is our time”.

Extra-care housing developments such as this are a hugely important part of tackling the housing crisis for older people as part of a wider joint approach. Housing associations like Alpha Living are experts at developing and creating vibrant communities.

We need to change society’s perceptions of older people and provide homes and communities which don’t just meet needs but meet real aspirations.

We also need to get much better at communicating what our offer is and that sheltered and extra care housing can help people grow old disgracefully if they choose to do so.

One of our new residents said last week she hasn’t smiled so much in years, but she thought sheltered accommodation was just a venue for bingo. There is much more to do.

We can plan better for the future now the immediate spectre of a sheltered and supported housing rent cap is lifted. How many of us, though, are genuinely planning aspirational places to live for future generations of older people? Will it take another burning bridge to prompt us into action?

I am privileged to work in this sector. On a daily basis I meet people who inspire me with their zest for life, humility and individuality. These are our friends, parents, grandparents and loved ones who all deserve the best possible futures.

Talking to them and getting their views enables Alpha Living to tailor our offering to their needs but also reminds me that older generations need to have their voices heard. Only by listening to them can we really provide the homes, communities and services that will enable them to live happy, independent lives.

NH

Graeme Foster is chief executive of Alpha Living

*Office of National Statistics

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